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Photogs sue Google over Book Search culture grab

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The American Society of Media Photographers has sued Mountain View over Google Book Search, the library-scanning project that's already the subject of an unusually controversial lawsuit from American authors and publishers.

In a class action suit filed in a New York-based federal court on Wednesday, the photographers' trade association claims that Google has illegally scanned and displayed millions of books and other publications without the approval of those who control the rights to the photographs and other artwork inside those titles. "This is a civil action that arises under the laws of the United States and is designed to redress the most widespread, well-publicized, and uncompensated infringement of exclusive rights in images in the history of book and periodical publishing," the suit reads.

The AMSP says that it filed the suit after the court denied its request to be included in the existing lawsuit against Google Book Search by the US Authors Guild and the Association of American Publishers. "Through this suit, we are fulfilling the missions of our organizations and standing up for the rights of photographers and other visual artists who have been excluded from the process up to now," reads a canned statement from AMSP executive director Eugene Mopsik. "We strongly believe that our members and those of other organizations, whose livelihoods are significantly and negatively impacted, deserve to have representation in this landmark issue."

Asked to comment, Google said much the same thing it always says when criticism hits Book Search. "We are confident that Google Books is fully compliant with U.S. and international copyright law," a company spokeswoman said in an email. "Google Books is an historic effort to make all of the knowledge contained within the world's books searchable online. It exposes readers to information they might not otherwise see, and it provides authors and publishers with a new way to be found."

In October 2008, Google settled the suit from American authors and publishers, which makes similar claims to the AMSP suit. But following a firestorm of criticism from competitors, academics, librarians and eventually the Department of Justice, the court has yet to approve the $125m pact.

The settlement creates a "Book Rights Registry" where authors and publishers can resolve copyright claims in exchange for a share of Google's revenues from the project. But it also gives Google the unique right to digitize and make money from "orphan works," titles whose rights are controlled by authors and publishers who have yet to come forward. And although other book sellers could negotiate the rights to Registry titles, the Registry alone would have the power to set prices. Google and its fellow parties are essentially rewriting copyright law with a civil settlement.

In September of last year, the DoJ told the court to reject the settlement if it wasn't changed to address "significant problems". And though Google and its fellow parties did make changes, the DoJ objected the revised settlement as well. "[The amended settlement] suffers from the same core problem as the original arrangement: It is an attempt to use the class action mechanism to implement forward-looking business arrangements that go far beyond the dispute before the court," Justice said.

To date, Google has scanned over 10 million books, and it estimates that about eight million of those are still under copyright. Currently, when it posts works online, it only displays snippets if it believes the title may still be under copyright. And at least in some cases, it blacks out artwork that may be under copyright.

The ASMP suit argues that Google is infringing copyright not just by displaying works, but by scanning and storing them. As part of its ongoing criticism of Google's settlement with authors and publishers, the Internet Archive - the not-for-profit organization that runs its own book-scanning project - has pointed out that even if rights holders opt out of Google Book Search, Mountain View is still free to mine their works for its own internal purposes.

With its suit, the ASMP is joined by several co-plaintiffs, including the Graphic Artists Guild, the Picture Archive Council of America, the North American Nature Photography Association, Professional Photographers of America, and handful of independent photographers and illustrators. ®

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