The Google Books project, where the company scans books, indexes them, and makes either snippets, selections, or the whole work available online, has a long legal history. The nature of the project raises concerns over copyright, not only the legality of making snippets available for search on the web. It presents a way for public domain material to be accessible to a wide audience (and possibly restricted to a single access point that could be put behind a paywall at some point in the future). It also raises issues about so-called orphan works, where the work is still under copyright, but it’s difficult, if not impossible to find the proper rights holder(s).
A class action suit was initiated against the project in 2005, and a preliminary settlement agreement was proposed a little over one year ago. That agreement prompted a series of objections from groups in the United States and abroad. The Department of Justice also weighed in with its concerns, which included copyright and anti-trust concerns. As a result, earlier this fall Google developed a revised settlement agreement, which received preliminary approval from a judge in late November.
The major changes in the proposed agreement scale back the number of books covered by the project, change how royalties for orphan books are handled, and increase opportunities for potential competitors. The new terms restrict Google Books to dealing with books published in the United States, Britain, Canada and Australia. This removes much of the foreign opposition to the project. The orphan works royalties would be administered by a trustee under the new arrangement, rather than the proposed registry in the original agreement. The new agreement also allows for competitors to get more favorable licensing terms than Google, which had been prevented. And most notably for the Justice Department, Google waived immunity from future antitrust lawsuits.
Parties have until January 28, 2010 to submit their objections, which will be considered at a hearing in late February. You can review the full amended agreement online.