The Economist : Google Book Deal Seen As Novel Compromise

Monday, November 3, 2008

TECHNOLOGY forces old laws to contort themselves in new ways.  The phonograph and radio threatened to wreck the idea of music copyright—then embodied in sheet music.  But lawyers struck novel compromises between new media and old laws: collection societies were set up to pay composers and performers, and the market grew.  On October 28th a similar breakthrough was announced for accessing books online.  Google has reached a settlement with groups representing authors and publishers, who had sued the world’s biggest internet company in 2005 for copyright infringement.  Google has been scanning millions of books into digital form and making the text available online in small “snippets”, to answer users’ search queries.  The company said this constituted “fair use” of the copyrighted material, since only a small part of the work was accessible.  The Association of American Publishers and the Authors Guild disagreed.  The resulting legal fight was widely expected to end in a settlement, but it took a while to agree on the terms.  Under the deal, Google will pay $125m to compensate copyright holders and will set up a “Book Rights Registry” to pay authors and publishers for the digital use and sale of works—akin to the collection societies that send royalty cheques to musicians and songwriters.  People will be able to buy digital books outright, or pay to access them by the page.  A small part of each book will be free to consult.  Google will take 37% of the revenue and 63% will go to copyright holders.  Publishers and authors can opt out of the programme.  Books no longer covered by copyright will be free.  The settlement, which must still be approved by the court, may encounter problems…..Google has in effect been granted a licence over almost all copyrighted works represented in the suit, giving it an overwhelming advantage in online-book indexing and retrieval, says Jennifer Urban, a copyright expert at the University of Southern California.  That may increase competition concerns that are haunting the firm.  The agreement will apply only in America, but is likely to serve as a model for other countries.  If successful, it will open up a new realm of knowledge online—and a new market.

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