June 30, 2009 2:17 am

Congress pressed to act on Google book settlement

The world’s largest university press has called for immediate action by the US Congress to prevent Google gaining exclusive rights to exploit the “orphan works” made available through its book search initiative.

Tim Barton, president of the US arm of Oxford University Press, said students’ tendency to overlook books they could not find online made the settlement Google struck last October with publishers that had accused it of copyright infringement “a remarkable and remarkably ambitious achievement.”

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However, he said there was no “public good” in the settlement’s proposal to grant Google a monopoly over “orphan” titles, whose copyright holders cannot been found.

“If the parties to the settlement cannot themselves solve this major problem, then at a minimum Congress should pass orphan-works legislation that gives others the same rights as Google,” Mr Barton wrote in The Chronicle of Higher Education.

The settlement has been enthusiastically endorsed by the Association of American Publishers, the Authors Guild, and several individual publishing executives, but is being probed by the Department of Justice.

Much of the opposition to the settlement, which has focused on the orphan works issue, has come instead from libraries and law professors.

Robert Darnton, the director of the Harvard University library system, warned in February that the settlement would hand Google a monopoly over ’the vast bulk of books that are in research libraries.”

Mr Barton noted that approval of the settlement could accelerate orphan works legislation, but added that “further refinement” was needed of plans for a proposed Book Rights Registry, where Google was “unnecessarily cautious" in restricting the registry from offering others better terms than Google gets.

This “most favoured nation” clause would only apply in limited cases, where another party licensed a substantial portion of unclaimed works, Google told the FT, implying that a competitor such as Amazon.com could negotiate lower prices if it wanted to undercut Google.

Google denies that the orphan works element in the settlement would give the company exclusivity, saying it would gain certain limited rights, and supported the idea of legislation. ”It is a partial solution, but we think more needs to be done for everyone,” a spokesman said.

The impact of search engines such as Google in making available old out-of-copyright books has been such that “the vast majority of the scholarship published in book form over the last 80 years is today largely overlooked by students, who limit their research to what can be discovered on the Internet,” Mr Barton said.

“What once seemed at least debatable has now become irrefutable: If it’s not online, it’s invisible,” he added.

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