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Authors Guild: We don't want to be the RIAA

Google's settlement with authors and publishers was agreed to by plaintiffs because they thought a legal victory would not necessarily end copyright infringement.

The Authors Guild agreed to a controversial settlement with Google because it feared repeating the mistakes that the music industry has made in dealing with digital works, it said Friday.

Google and the Authors Guild have struggled to get final approval of a settlement granting Google the right to continue a six-year book-scanning project than has digitized 12 million titles. Objections to that settlement from authors and academics have been heated, and despite revisions, the U.S. Department of Justice continued to object in principle to the settlement on Thursday, saying "the (revised agreement) purports to grant legal rights that are difficult to square with the core principle of the Copyright Act that copyright owners generally control whether and how to exploit their works during the term of copyright."

With that in mind, many have wondered why the Authors Guild chose to settle the case rather than fight it out in court and clear up the issue of whether or not Google's decision to scan out-of-print yet copyright-protected books really is allowed under fair-use laws. The reason is simple, the Guild said in a blog post Friday: legal victories haven't stopped copyright infringement in other forms of digital media.

"Copyright victories tend to be Pyrrhic in the digital age," the Guild wrote. If the Guild had prevailed in its suit against Google, it said it believed that copyright infringement would have just moved elsewhere, just as court victories won by the RIAA over Napster led to the rise of services like Kazaa and others.

And if it had lost, the Guild said it couldn't have guaranteed copyright protection for in-print books, which under the settlement Google is not allowed to scan without an agreement with the rights holder. "Nothing gets illegal file-sharing going quite so much as millions of unsecured digital works floating around the Internet," the Guild wrote.

At least musicians can go on tour and sell concert tickets to performances of their works; that's not exactly an option for authors, the Guild wrote. "For most authors, markets created by copyright are all we've got."

It's hard to determine what Judge Denny Chin of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York will decide later this month when the parties come together for a hearing on whether or not to approve the settlement. The statements by the DOJ make it clear that the U.S. government believes Google and the plaintiffs are overstepping their bounds in creating an agreement that awards unique rights to Google.

But the Authors Guild doesn't think there was any other way to ensure that authors receive compensation for their work and avoid the Napsterization of the book publishing industry.

"Protecting authors' interests has always been our top priority: in this case a timely harnessing of Google was the best way to do it."