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Last words? Google Books to get final hearing

Five years of debate over Google Books and its proposed settlement with groups representing authors and publishers will be summed up in one final hearing Thursday in New York.

A federal judge will start writing the ending to the Google Books saga on Thursday, finally paving the way for a resolution of the five-year dispute.

Representatives from Google, groups representing authors and publishers, privacy advocates, and competitors will appear before Judge Denny Chin on Thursday in New York to argue--for possibly the last time--over whether Chin should approve Google's class action settlement with the authors and publishers over Google Book Search. If approved, the settlement would allow Google to display books with varying degrees of access, sell books directly from its site, and launch an institution subscription to its library of over 12 million books.

It has been a long, controversial road to this point, starting when Google was sued in 2005. Observers initially hoped the dispute would clarify fair-use laws regarding books in the Digital Age, which is becoming more and more important as e-readers and tablet devices come to the fore. However, in settling the lawsuit without settling that question, the parties created a digital-book landscape in which Google is the only organization in the U.S. explicitly authorized to make digital copies of out-of-print yet copyright-protected books, much to the dismay of many authors and privacy advocates.

Potential competitors, however, object to the unique rights that Google has been granted based on the class action status of the lawsuit. Some authors are irate over Google's decision to scan their works without asking permission. Privacy advocates fear corporate oversight of what books people are reading. And the U.S. Department of Justice has twice expressed "antitrust" concerns over the proposed settlement.

How did we get here?

• December 2003: Google announces Google Print, later to become Google Book Search..

• September 2005: Google is sued by the Authors Guild and American Association of Publishers.

• October 2008: Google and the plaintiffs settle the case for $125 million, pledging to create a system for funneling revenue to authors.

• April 2009: Judge Chin extends the deadline for authors to opt out of the settlement.

• September 2009: The DOJ objects to the settlement.

• September 2009: The final hearing is delayed again until Thursday.

• November 2009: Google and the plaintiffs file an amended agreement.

• February 2010: The DOJ objects yet again to the amended settlement.

Few observers expect Chin to announce a decision Thursday, but clues as to his final ruling could be evident from the line of questioning that he pursues. There are 28 parties expected to speak at the hearing, with 23 groups expected to speak out against the settlement.