Google Book Search Settlement Draws Writers' Ire

Books

Two dozen authors including Michael Chabon, Jonathan Lethem and Cory Doctorow have joined the ranks of opponents to Google's controversial settlement with authors and publishers, arguing that the deal could put readers' privacy at risk.

"Monitoring creates a significant harm -- and possibly danger -- for people who read about controversial subjects," the authors state in court papers filed Tuesday by the Electronic Frontier Foundation, ACLU, and UC Berkeley School of Law's Samuelson Law, Technology & Public Policy Clinic. "By compiling extensive data on readers' reading habits, Google Book Search will almost certainly become a source for governmental entities and private litigants seeking this sensitive, associational information on readers. The court should not approve a settlement that enables that scenario to unfold."

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If approved, the settlement would resolve a 4-year-old copyright lawsuit filed against Google by the Authors Guild and the Association of American Publishers. The deal calls for Google to fund a new book rights registry, similar to the music industry's ASCAP and BMI, and then sell downloads of books at prices that it sets with the registry. The agreement also allows Google to digitize orphan works without fear of copyright infringement lawsuits. Currently, no one can publish orphan works without risking liability -- which can run as high as $150,000 per infringement.

A variety of outside organizations have recently weighed in to either oppose the settlement, seek revisions, or support it. Some -- like Chabon and the other authors -- have raised privacy concerns, while other opponents contend the deal would give Google an unfair competitive advantage over other book publishers.

All objections were due Tuesday. U.S. District Court Judge Denny Chin intends to hold a hearing on the proposed settlement on Oct. 7.

Chabon, along with the other authors represented by the digital rights groups, argues that the court should not allow the settlement to go forward without assurances that Google will guarantee readers the same right to privacy and anonymity that patrons of brick-and-mortar libraries have.

"Unfortunately, the settlement includes no limitations on collection and use of reader information and no privacy standards for retention, modification, deletion or disclosure of that information to third parties or the government," the challengers contend. "Without those limitations, an unprecedented quantity of information about readers' activities will be, and indeed already is being collected."

Late last week, Google made some privacy concessions, including promising to comply with state laws that protect the privacy of book readers and to limit the information that's available to credit card companies about the books people purchase.

But the authors say that a corporate privacy policy is not adequate to protect people. "Google's aspirations, while noble, are simply not the same as an enforceable commitment," they argue.

Separately, on Friday the Electronic Privacy Information Center filed a motion to intervene in the case in order to represent the privacy interests of potential users of the new book service.

The digital rights group Center for Democracy and Technology also filed a motion saying that it supported the settlement, but wants the court to impose privacy safeguards.

Other challengers to the settlement include the American Society of Journalists and Authors, DC Comics, the National Writers Union, Amazon, and advocacy group Public Knowledge.

Among other arguments, some challengers say the portion of the deal that allows Google to digitize and sell orphan works -- books still under copyright, but whose owner can't be found -- will give the company an unfair advantage over other potential publishers, who will still face the prospect of liability for selling such material.

"If Google is allowed this ability to license orphan works, the only way for a competitor to enter the market would be to (1) get sued by a class of authors broad enough to include orphan authors, and (2) come to a settlement agreement with that class to allow the provision of orphan works to the public," Public Knowledge argued in its brief. "Each of these situations depends upon a set of circumstances so unlikely to occur as to be nearly impossible."

At the same time, a number of outside groups have said they support the settlement. Proponents include advocates for people with disabilities like the National Federation of the Blind, the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and a group of antitrust professors.

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