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Libraries ask court to monitor Google after book settlement is approved

May 4, 2009 |  5:57 pm
Books
Google's project to digitize books is garnering objections. Credit: Wonderland via Flickr

Three organizations representing 139,000 libraries today asked the judge overseeing Google's settlement with authors and publishers to make sure that the company doesn't violate the privacy of readers who would use its vast digital books collection.

They also petitioned U.S. District Court Judge Denny Chin to ensure that Google doesn't set the price for access to its digital books "beyond the reach of many libraries."

The organizations, which include the American Library Assn.; the Assn. of College and Research Libraries; and the Assn. of Research Libraries, said they were not opposed to the settlement, which was reached in October between Google and the Assn. of American Publishers and the Authors Guild.

"The Settlement has the potential to provide unprecedented access to a digital library containing millions of books," the library groups said in a letter to the court. "But in the absence of competition for the services enabled by the Settlement, this impact may not be entirely positive. The Settlement could compromise fundamental library values such as equity of access to information, patron privacy, and intellectual freedom."

The proposed settlement, which requires court approval, would create ...

... a books registry to keep track of copyrights and dole out money based on how Google profits from digitized books. As of November, Google had scanned about 8 million books through a partnership with libraries. In exchange, Google has promised to give each library a single free terminal for patrons to read the books, but not print or copy any of the works. For broader access, libraries would have to pay an institutional subscription fee that has not yet been determined.

Many librarians also fret about the effect the settlement would have on free access, a fundamental value of libraries. "To digitize collections and sell products in ways that fail to guarantee wide access ... would turn the Internet into an instrument for privatizing knowledge that belongs in the public sphere," Robert Darnton, director of the Harvard University Library, wrote in an essay titled "Google & the Future of Books."

Other organizations have expressed fear over a perceived lack of competition and Google's domination of a digital book market. The Internet Archive in San Francisco, which scans books whose copyrights have lapsed and makes them available online for free, contends that the settlement would give Google an unfair advantage in being able to digitize millions of so-called orphan books -- titles that are still protected under copyright but whose rights holders cannot be located or determined. Though the settlement protects Google from future lawsuits arising from the scanning of those books, other organizations attempting to do the same would still be open to liability, said Peter Brantley, director of the Internet Archive.

Brantley has said he was interviewed in April by officials from the Justice Department regarding the settlement. Another group, Consumer Watchdog in Santa Monica, also confirmed discussions with Justice Department officials on the effects of the settlement on competition.

-- Alex Pham

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