New chapter in Google books row

By Natasha Barr

Google yesterday received a shot in the arm in its attempt to publish text from seven million books when European Union’s media commissioner, Viviane Reding, gave the service her full support.

Google Books has proved controversial for Google from the off. It fought a number of legal battles in 2005 and has been waiting to see its Google Books Settlement Agreement (GBSA) reviewed by the US District Court in New York for over a year, while the US Department of Justice has also opened a separate anti-trust investigation.

In Europe, Germany has made a complaint against Google Books, while The Open Book Alliance has been formed to voice opposition from retailers, publishers and anti-Google sympathisers including Microsoft, Yahoo and The Internet Archive with Amazon reported to be the next to sign-up.

"Google is trying to monopolise the library system," is the argument put forward by The Internet Archive founder Brewster Kahle.

Not so, argues Google, unsurprisingly. It proudly displays the Google Books Settlement Agreement here - but for those of you who’re prepared to take our word for it, the agreement works like this:

Google Books gets the rights to digitalise all copyrighted books in the USA and create The Book Rights Registry. The Registry would allow the publishers that don’t opt out of the Registry to claim 70% of anything bought as a result of the service, with Google retaining the remainder.

Google would also get the rights to publish ‘orphan books’, which are out of print and copyrighted, but where the right holders are unknown or cannot be found. There are many of these books in libraries across the USA, and Google would almost claim exclusivity of their online publishing.

The European Commission is tackling the agreement first and is holding a public hearing on the 7th September, so news that big cheese Reding is likely to give her backing will come as a much-needed boost.

“It is good to see that new business models are evolving which could allow bringing more content to an increasing number of consumers,” she said with a glowing thumbs-up.

And therein lies the crux of the issue: is Google building a monopoly and bullying traditional publishers into submission or is it simply innovating and disrupting a tired, staid market to the advantage of the consumer? And, either way, does Microsoft really need to get involved?

The American review will take place in New York on October 7 and looks set to have huge implications for the future of publishing - but Google will read Reding’s comments as a small battle won, if not the war.

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