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Microsoft, Amazon, Yahoo!, and other opponents of Google's Book Search settlement have proposed an alternative to the controversial legal pact, calling on the US Congress to appoint a "public guardian" to oversee a national database of digital books.

The Open Book Alliance - whose members include the tech trio, Internet Archive and various writer and library associations - was created to oppose Google's book-scanning settlement with American authors and publishers, and the organziation has long said that the $125m civil pact should be replaced by Congressional legislation that settles copyright issues for all digital book sellers. But in a letter (PDF) to Congress today, the Alliance formally proposed a national digital books "process" that would involve a public guardian.

"The OBA calls on Google to halt its current strategy, which focuses on fattening its profits and ensuring its continued domination of the internet search market at the expense of broader social responsibilities," read the letter, signed by Peter Brantley of the Internet Archive, who co-founded the Alliance.

"Google, and the parties to the proposed settlement, must instead commit to joining this new inclusive process and engage the broad audience of advocates that share a passion for the digitization of books, promoting open competition and access to digital books for the widest number of people."

The OBA's public guardian would be a not-for-profit or a public sector library, such as The Library of Congress. "To ensure the widest participation by content holders and greatest public benefit, the digital book database should be entrusted to a neutral, civic, not-for-profit organization," the letter says. "In a similar vein, the governments of France and the Netherlands have entrusted public institutions with the administration of digital libraries."

In October 2008, Google settled a longstanding lawsuit from the US Authors Guild and the Association of American Publishers over its Book Search project, an effort to digitize millions of book buried inside many of the world's top research libraries.

The pact created a "Book Rights Registry" where authors and publishers could resolve copyright claims in exchange for a cut of Google's revenues. But it also gave Google the unique right to scan, sell, and post ads against so-called orphan works - books whose rights holders have yet to come forward. And although other ebook sellers could negotiate the rights these texts, the Registry alone would have the power to set prices.

After an intervention from the DoJ, Google and its fellow parties in the case amended the settlement. Subject to court approval, the revised deal still gives Google the power to post and sell orphan works, but an independent fiduciary would retain all revenues from scanned orphans for up to 10 years.

Google is essentially rewriting copyright law in a way that favors it above all other book sellers. The company likes to say that its pact does not preclude federal legislation on ebook copyright, but the Open Book Alliance would prefer if legislation before the fact.

"Only an open and deliberative conversation in Congress will appropriately weigh the concerns of all stakeholders and create bright-line laws that apply equally to all consumers, companies and stakeholders," the Alliance's letter continues.

"Any successful digitization effort must not be exclusive to a single for-profit company as a result of legal arrangements delivering [an] unfair monopoly. It also must uphold the rights of authors and copyright." ®

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