Google pushes for new law on orphan books

The company has taken heat for its settlement with book publishers. If you don't like it, get Congress to make better copyright laws, a Google exec suggested Thursday.

Tom Krazit Former Staff writer, CNET News
Tom Krazit writes about the ever-expanding world of Google, as the most prominent company on the Internet defends its search juggernaut while expanding into nearly anything it thinks possible. He has previously written about Apple, the traditional PC industry, and chip companies. E-mail Tom.
Tom Krazit
3 min read

MOUNTAIN VIEW, Calif.--If those organizations attacking Google's book search settlement with publishers spent as much time lobbying Congress for better laws concerning those issues, perhaps the controversy would go away, Google's chief Book Search engineer suggested Thursday night.

Dan Clancy, Google Book Search head engineer, defends Google's Book Search settlement Thursday. Tom Krazit/CNET

Google's quest to convince the world it has nothing to fear by its settlement with publishers came to the Computer History Museum Thursday where Dan Clancy, engineering director for Google Book Search, defended the settlement before a few hundred attendees who submitted written questions to John Hollar, president and CEO of the museum. Last year, Google settled a lawsuit filed by publishers with an agreement that gives it the right to scan books that have copyright protection but are out of print even if the rights holder of the work can't be located to grant permission: rights holders have until September to opt out of the settlement and forbid Google from scanning their books if they so choose. The settlement is not final, and a final hearing is scheduled for October to approve the settlement.

Clancy argued that the vast majority of rights holders have every reason to work with Google, given that books that have copyright protection but have fallen out of print can be given a new lease on life if they can be searched, read, and eventually purchased over the Internet. Book publishers lose interest in printing a book if demand is low, but the Internet makes it possible for books to be distributed at extremely low cost.

The problem is that Google's settlement makes it the only organization in the U.S. with the legal authority to scan and publish so-called "orphan works," or books that are still under copyright protection but whose rights holders can not be located. Google was sued when it began scanning books in general, and the thinking is that anybody else who tried to scan an orphan work and compete with Google's offering would be forced to follow a similar legal path to obtain the same freedom.

The Internet Archive has been one of the more prominent critics of Google's Book Search settlement, and distributed a statement prior to Thursday's event saying just that. "...no one else has the same legal protections that Google has. Would the parties to the settlement amend the settlement to extend legal liability indemnification to any and all digitizers of orphan works? If not, why not leave orphans out of the settlement and compel a legislative solution instead of striking a private deal in a district court?"

Under the settlement, the Books Rights Registry is allowed to cut deals with other companies or organizations looking to digitize books, but they are not allowed to extend the same privileges Google enjoys with respect to orphan works, which Clancy estimated as about 10 percent of the books that are out of print but still protected by copyright.

That's why a legislative solution that fixes the problems concerning orphan works is the best outcome for everyone with a stake in book digitization, and Google is leaning on Congress to get such a law passed, Clancy said. Given the pressing issues before Congress at the moment--not to mention the complexity of copyright law--finding champions for such legislation has been difficult, he said.

Google thinks that by obtaining the right to digitize orphan works, it will stimulate demand for digital book scanning that eventually forces Congress to act. Any law passed to loosen restrictions on the use of orphan works would take precedent over Google's settlement.