For some time now, Google has been engaged in a project scanning books from the world's libraries with the intention of putting them all on the web as another vehicle for its advertising engine. But does this infringe on the copyrights of the authors, and will we end up with a Google monopoly on books?
When Google launched its book digitising project in 2004, several American libraries, including the New York public library and the Harvard university library welcomed Google in and allowed it to start scanning their collections. So far it has scanned some 10 million books, with plans to scan another 30 million. If it was only scanning old documents where the copyright had expired then there would not be an issue, but it is scanning all works in the library. As a result, in 2005, Google was sued in a class action lawsuit by the American Authors Guild and members of the Association of American Publishers. This case was eventually resolved in a $125 million settlement which, as well as allowing Google to carry on scanning books at will, also gives it two key rights.
The first right is that it will establish a Book Rights Registry which it exclusively owns and which authors can use to register their books with Google. Once they've registered, authors receive a share of the advertising revenues that Google earns against their books. This is contrary to copyright rules elsewhere in the world where authors automatically have copyright and do not need to register with any organisation, let alone register with a commercial entity based in the USA.
The second right arising out of the settlement is that Google has obtained a unique license to "orphan works". These are books which are still in copyright but out of print, no longer supported by a publisher, and therefore contacting the rights holders can be difficult, if not impossible. Pro-Google commentators say this is only a tiny fraction of published works whilst critics claim it represents between 50% and 70% of all books published since 1923. Google now claims online rights to all these orphan works unless and until the author comes forward to establish their ownership. Again this is contrary to all copyright principles elsewhere in the world.
Google argue that putting orphan works online can only benefit the authors who may end up earning money from books which are now out of print. That may be true in some cases, but it is not Google's decision to make. Authors may simply not wish to have their work republished, or they may be negotiating a reprint with a new publisher or perhaps discussing film rights and have no wish to have those deals undermined by an online publishing deal imposed on them by Google.
It also raises the question of how people are supposed to know about the online registry and how they prove ownership. Many authors, especially those outside the USA, may be completely unaware of the books registry. Will a new industry arise whereby people with no rights in an orphan work stake claims to it to grab some advertising dollars? Anywhere else in the world, copyright law would put the onus on Google to establish ownership and obtain permission before using the work, not put the onus on the author to track unauthorised usage after the event.
Google denies it has a monopoly on books and says any organisation could do what it has done, but few have the resources to scan millions of books and publish them until they get sued, and then force through a legal settlement. It is important the the US courts and Congress debate this settlement before they sanction it, and it is important that the rest of the world asserts its intellectual property rights and does not allow the American solution to become de facto copyright law.
26th August 2009
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