Last updated: March 22, 2011 11:53 pm

Judge throws out Google book deal

A US judge rejected Google’s landmark legal settlement with book publishers and authors on Tuesday, throwing into doubt a deal that has been a linchpin of the search company’s attempts to forge stronger relations with media companies.

The provisional $125m settlement would have put a stamp of approval on the company’s controversial efforts to digitise millions of books and allow it to open a huge online store with electronic versions of works that had long been unavailable.

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However, the plan had been attacked by rivals, led by Microsoft and Amazon, who claimed it would give Google an unfair advantage by letting it short-circuit key provisions of copyright law. The US Department of Justice also took issue with many details of the plan, and governments in countries including France and Germany claimed it would contravene international copyright agreements.

The complaints forced a renegotiation of the original settlement in 2009. But on Tuesday, in an opinion issued in Federal court in Manhattan, Judge Denny Chin said even the new deal would have left Google with too much power. Its plans would benefit many, he said, but the settlement “would simply go too far”, and would “further entrench [Google’s] dominant position” in internet searches.

Echoing complaints levelled by Google’s competitors and the justice department, he said that the agreement, rather than simply resolve a past complaint, would have amounted to “a forward-looking business arrangement that would grant Google significant rights to exploit entire books, without permission of the copyright owners”.

Google, in a statement, said: “This is clearly disappointing, but we’ll review the court’s decision and consider our options. Like many others, we believe this agreement has the potential to open-up access to millions of books that are currently hard
to find in the US today.”

John Sargent, chief executive of Macmillan, said on behalf of the publishers that they were prepared to scale back the settlement to meet the judge’s main objection, raising the prospect of a resolution that would stop far short of the original plans. Judge Chin urged the parties to the settlement to scrap a provision that would have made all books available in digital form unless their publishers and authors had explicitly opted out of the arrangement. Instead, an “opt-in” would answer many of the concerns, he said.

Google and book industry representatives had argued such an opt-in would restrict the scope of Google’s planned online store. Some opponents welcomed the judgment and said they would support a settlement that included the proposed opt-in. “It would look a lot more reasonable,” said James Grimmelmann, associate professor at New York Law School.

A more limited settlement would not restrict electronic distribution of the books most consumers want to read, said Randal Picker, a professor at the University of Chicago Law School. Instead by restricting access to the “orphan works” whose rights holders cannot be traced, it would mainly affect academics and specialists, he said.

Google has scanned 12m books in the seven years since it began creating electronic editions from some of the world’s leading libraries.

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