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Google invites Amazon to resell its digital books

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Hoping to allay fears that its $125m library-scanning settlement would deliver far too much power over the fledgling digital-book market, Google has told Congress it will give competitors access to its online texts.

"Google will host the digital books online, and retailers such as Amazon, Barnes & Noble or your local bookstore will be able to sell access to users on any Internet-connected device they choose," company chief legal officer David Drummond said during a US Congressional hearing this morning. This reseller program would apply to a planned service called Google Editions.

The announcement made (many) headlines, from Reuters to The Wall Street Journal to Cnet. But it's worth noting this sort of affiliate program is already discussed in Google's 134-page settlement. And the offer would only apply if the controversial pact wins approval.

"Google’s announcement today that it would give retailers access to out of print books via Google Editions is much ado about nothing," said the Internet Archive's Peter Brantley, speaking on behalf of the Open Book Alliance, a group that opposes the Google settlement.

"If Google Editions ever comes to fruition — and it’s pure vaporware right now — it doesn’t address the fundamental problems with the Settlement that so many have cited, including the fact that Google would still have sole control over access to the books, and shoppers would still be subjected to questionable and undefined privacy policies."

Under its pending settlement with American authors and publishers, Google would get 37 per cent of the revenue from digital books sold through its online book service, and Drummond said that competitors would share much of this revenue with the resellers. But the texts would still be housed on Google's service, and Google would be the sole option for accessing these digital titles.

In October, Google settled a longstanding lawsuit from US Authors Guild and the Association of American Publishers over its Book Search project, which seeks to digitize works inside many of the world's leading research libraries. Among other things, the settlement - which still requires court approval - would give Google exclusive rights to so-called orphan works, works whose rights holders have not come forward.

Many have raised strong objections to this orphan monopoly-in-waiting, including Amazon, as federal judge Denny Chin prepares to examine Google's settlement during a fairness hearing next month. Amazon and others have argued that Congressional legislation - not a civil lawsuit specific to a single company - is the best way to solve the issues swirling around ebook copyrights, and this morning, the US House Judiciary committee met to examine the matter.

As reported by CNet, when questioned about Google's announcement, Amazon - a member of the Open Book Alliance - indicated it has no interest in the Editions reseller program. "The Internet has never been about intermediation," said Paul Misener, Amazon's vice president of global policy. "We're happy to work with rights holders without anybody else's help."

Whereas Google has scanned about 10 million books via pacts with research libraries, Amazon has scanned about 3 million through explicit deals with rights holders.

Meanwhile, Marybeth Peters, register of copyrights for the U.S. Copyright Office, warned that Google's settlement would "alter the landscape of copyright law." Originally, the Authors Guild and the Association of Publishers sued because Google was posting snippets of scanned works under copyright, but as Peters points out, the settlement casts a much wider net.

"Although Google is a commercial entity, acting for a primary purpose of commercial gain, the settlement absolves Google of the need to search for the rights holders or obtain their prior consent and provides a complete release from liability. In contrast to the scanning and snippets originally at issue, none of these new acts could be reasonably alleged to be fair use," she said in a prepared statement.

"The settlement proposed by the parties would encroach on responsibility for copyright policy that traditionally has been the domain of Congress...It could affect the exclusive rights of millions of copyright owners, in the United States and abroad, with respect to their abilities to control new products and new markets, for years and years to come. We are greatly concerned by the parties’ end run around legislative process and prerogatives, and we submit that this Committee should be equally concerned." ®

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