Understanding the Google publishing settlement

The complex battle between publishers and Google is wending its way through the US courts.

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The complex copyright battle pitting authors and book publishers against Google is still wending its way through the US courts. The original proposed agreement, announced in 2008, outlined a plan to allow Google to make scanned books available online for searching, and would have set up mechanisms for authors and publishers to make money from digital editions of works that were out of print. Lois Wasoff, a copyright and trademark lawyer in the US, looks at the recent changes to the Google book settlement and what it means to foreign authors.

The latest changes are those made in the amended settlement agreement that was filed with the court in November of 2009. The amended settlement agreement eliminated many foreign works by changing the definition of "books" covered by the settlement. Previously, books in the library collections scanned by Google were included in the settlement regardless of their country of origin. The new definition of books makes the settlement apply to US works that were registered with the US Copyright Office by January 5, 2009, works published in the UK, Canada and Australia by that date, and works from other countries that were registered with the US Copyright Office by January 5 2009. Since many foreign publishers and authors did register their works in the US, a number of non-US, UK, Canadian and Australian works remain covered by the settlement terms.

You can begin by checking your own records to see if your works were registered. You can also search US Copyright Office records, but that search can be cumbersome since the older registration records, particularly those from before 1976, when the US law was changed, can be difficult to work with.

The estimates vary widely. Before the US copyright law changed in the late 1970s, there were legal incentives to register non-US works in order to be sure of protection under US law. Publishers in some countries had a normal practice of registering their works in the US; in other countries, the practice was not so common. I don't think it is possible to say yet how widespread the potential impact is, but representatives of publishers and authors from both France and Germany were concerned enough to file formal objections to the amended settlement agreement and to appear in person at the hearing held in a US court.

The amended settlement agreement cannot take effect until and unless it is approved by the US courts. It is not clear when the judge considering this matter will rule, and whatever his ruling, there will probably be an appeal. khagey@thenational.ae