Google book settlement case ratchets up, authors debate pros, cons

By Jean Latz Griffin

When the story broke last week that the Justice Department was seeking a high level of information about Google’s plan to scan millions of books and make them available online, it was yet another regulatory spotlight dialed up to bright on what one newspaper called the “dominant technology company of the decade.”

The requests for information, called civil investigative demands (CIDs), weren’t confirmed or denied by the Justice Department, but publishers told the Wall Street Journal that they had received requests for “documents about pricing, digital strategy and conversations with other publishers related to the Google settlement.”

And the attorney one of the plaintiffs in the suit told the New York Times that the amount of questions Justice Department regulators were asking “signals that they are serious about the antitrust implications of the settlement.”

The $125 million settlement, reached last year, has not yet been ratified by the courts.

It was supposed to be the end of a dispute between Google and authors/publishers over copyright law and establish a registry for publishers and authors to be paid when people read their books online. But in April, Justice officials began poking around, raising the possibility that they would block the settlement from taking effect.

GoogleEinstein2At a time when the publishing industry is undergoing serious upheavals and digital technology is outpacing any attempts of print to recover, what happens with Google affects both those who own the intellectual property at stake and those who wish to access it.

In other words, just about all of us.

What Google plans to do could put books from all over the world, going back centuries, a click or two and a couple of bucks away.  One of the questions is whether we want Google to be the earth’s library, and if so, should they have the exclusive right to do so.

‘We ain’t gonna stop digitalization; all we can hope is to have an honest broker keeping track,”  said Alan Porter, board member of an organization that submitted an amicus brief in the original suit against Google, writing in an online message to CyberINK.

“I suspect the notion of the settlement is the only way the question of electronic copyright can be settled, but I do have difficulty with the idea of a for-profit concern concentrating all that power,” Porter said. He is an editor, writer, consultant and publications executive. “It would make me much more comfortable if instead an independent entity was in charge, like an ASCAP or a BMI, which perform a similar service for the music industry.”

Lisa Stapleton, author of The Absolute Beginner’s Guide to Unix and a magazine writer and editor, says she can see both side of the debate on Google’s online books.

“As an author, I don’t want my work being ripped off,” Stapleton told CyberINK. “However, as a marketer, I realize that you can’t buy what you don’t know you want, and Google has often shown me authors, books, and reports that I didn’t know existed and that I later bought.”

Patti Winters, the author of Mirror of Remembrance, published through a POD (Print on Demand) publisher, says she fears that the Google settlement will hurt authors who have taken the POD route but would like to attract the interest of a mainstream publisher.

“Google can take the book you have already written and put it on their website for people to read,” said Winters, who is writing a second book. “The mainstream publisher isn’t going to want to publish your book, because it is already available to the public and you are back to square one.”

Authors and publishers have until Sept. 4 to opt out and choose not to be part of the settlement and thus not have their books included. They have until the end of 2009 to opt in and have their books scanned by Google, if they haven’t been already, and receive payment under the settlement when viewers access their books.

In the light of full disclosure, I own stock in Google and both my books have been scanned and parts can be viewed through its search program. But I’m not blind to the issues that this kind of technology and its power raises, and not just in the realm of digital books.

Both the Justice Department and the Federal Trade Commission have launched antitrust probes against Google. According to the WSJ article:

People close to Google say the company considers the investigations part of a broader push by new antitrust regulators to step up scrutiny of the technology industry after a lull during the Bush administration.

In addition, a Texas class action suit challenges Google’s placement of paid ads above free searches for the same word when that word is a trademark. Other companies have sued Google on similar grounds. One suit is being considered by a federal appeals court that reversed a dismissal by a lower court. Google has defended the practice saying that trademark law allow what they are doing.

“At our scale and with the impact we have, we expect to be inspected,” Google Chief Executive Eric Schmidt told the WSJ  last week. “We expect it in every government. I am not saying we love it or we hate it.”

More information on this issue can be found by following the links to the right.

Thanks to Danny Sullivan for the art.

About jeanlatzgriffin

Jean Latz Griffin is the owner of CyberINK, a small business that produces quirky skeleton-themed products. She has finished the first draft of a historical fantasy and received comments from her agent. She has turned to Orson Scott Card for tips on the second draft. She is author of "In the Same Breath," and "One Spirit: A Creation Story for the 21st Century." She has a certificate in creative writing from the University of Chicago's Writers Studio. Griffin is a member of the growing community of former Chicago Tribune reporters, enjoys Weekend Writing Warriors and the Story Studio in Chicago. Her Sheltie, Thunder, likes to "type" on her computer keys, and Dr Wu, a Weimaraner, likes to lick her ear when she is trying to think. Her husband passed in June of 2011. Her three fabulous grown sons live nearby. She plays violin in an amateur string orchestra.

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