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Microsoft, Amazon, Yahoo! to join anti-Googlebook war

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The battle to derail Google's Book Rights Registry has been joined by three heavyweight warriors: Microsoft, Amazon, and Yahoo!.

The New York Times has reported that the three tech giants are planning to join efforts to block the court settlement of a 2005 copyright-infringement class-action suit that would give Google the right to digitize, host, and sell ads against millions of published works.

The full settlement is nothing if not complex. At its core, however, is a mechanism that would allow Google to pay $125m to establish an independent Book Rights Registry to resolve copyright claims from authors and publishers in conjunction with Google's scanning of their works for its Book Search project.

Copyright holders who sign up with the Registry would receive a portion of Google's future Book Search profits, and if Google has already scanned their books, they could receive a cash payment.

One of the stickier parts of the multi-tenacled settlement, however, is that it gives Google the right to scan and host so-called "orphan books" - that is, books whose copyright holders can't be found.

Depending upon whom you ask, the settlement is either a breakthrough in knowledge distribution or a monopolistic grab of the intellectual wealth of nations.

When the settlement was originally announced, Roy Blount Jr, president of the Authors Guild, issued a statement that read in part: "As an author, well, we appreciate payment when people use our work. This deal makes good sense."

The Authors Guild also has on it website a FAQ supportive of the settlement, entitled Should I Opt Out? Should I Fear Google? What about the Money?

The Internet Archive, which is spearheading the anti-settlement effort, takes the opposite tack. Its founder, Brewster Kahle, told the BBC: "Google is trying to monopolise the library system. If this deal goes ahead, they're making a real shot at being 'the' library and the only library."

Another critic of the settlement, antitrust lawyer Gary Reback, told the NYT: "This deal has enormous, far-reaching anticompetitive consequences that people are just beginning to wake up to."

And today Microsoft, Amazon, and Yahoo!, from Reback's point of view, woke up. Amazon's Jeff Bezos is on record as saying about the proposed deal: "Clearly, that settlement in our opinion needs to be revisited and it is being revisited... it doesn't seem right that you should do something, kind of get a prize for violating a large series of copyrights."

The battle lines are clear. Authors see the Registry as a way to gain even a meager amount of cash from their work, and Google's competitors see the settlement as cementing an intellectual Googleopoly.

Google, for its part, doesn't see what all the fuss is about. Dan Clancy, the engineering director of Google Book Search, recently told attendees at a Silicon Valley confab: "The agreement is completely non-exclusive. It allows anyone to do exactly the same thing we're doing." The company's chief legal officer David Drummond has also said that "anyone who wanted to go scan" copyrighted books could "come up with a similar outcome."

Some observers see the issue in terms that are less black and white. The American Libraries Associations' Corey Williams, for example, told the BBC: "We do think the product in essence is good but the proposed settlement asks us to trust Google and the other parties a little too much. When it comes to privacy, the agreement is silent on the issue and with regard to what Google intends to do with the data it collects."

Message to Schmidt

Others have expressed concerns about privacy as well. The Center for Democracy and Technology (CDT) has issued a report (PDF) called Privacy Recommendations for the Google Book Search Settlement, and the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) recommends that you "tell Google CEO Eric Schmidt that Google must offer readers a level of online privacy that at least comes to par with the privacy protections we have offline."

Core to their concerns is that Google would know what books you were reading, but you wouldn't know what Google was doing with that information.

The US Department of Justice has also confirmed that it is investigating the settlement for possible anti-competitive measures. The DoJ's deputy attorney general William Cavanaugh wrote to judge overseeing the court review, saying: "The United States has reviewed public comments expressing concern that aspects of the settlement agreement may violate the Sherman [Antitrust] Act."

The European Union is not all that comfortable with the settlement either, and will hold a hearing on September 7 to gather input on how the deal might effect European authors.

If you want to join the Authors Guild, Internet Archive, CDT, EFF, ALA, and now Microsoft, Amazon, and Yahoo! in voicing your opinions, you have until September 4 to do so. The settlement will go before a US District Court judge in New York on October 7. ®

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