On Book Settlement, Google Is Still Trying To Hold The Line

Earlier today, as Google co-founder Sergey Brin and CEO Eric Schmidt were holding forth before a dozen or so reporters in their New York City offices, a judge downtown was postponing a hearing on the Google Book settlement until November 9 to give Google and the Author’s Guild more time to change parts of the settlement. Because of opposition from the Department of Justice and others, the settlement is being amended.

But if you think that Google is about to cave in any major way, think again. Schmidt offered the following synopsis of the situation during the press conference: “We thought we were doing something appropriate. We were sued by a bunch of publishers, and now it has come before a judge. We don’t want to change it unless we need to.” (The “it” being the settlement).

Brin had already brought up the settlement at the very beginning of the meeting. It was obviously on his mind. He mentioned that the hearing was going on as he spoke. “Generally, that is something I am very proud of,” he said, “to make the world’s books accessible.”

Google has scanned million of books to make them searchable, and was subsequently sued by the Author’s Guild for violating copyrights. They settled. Now, the objections to the settlement center mainly around one part dealing with so-called “orphan works” (out-of-print books still under copyright, but whose owners are unknown). The settlement gives Google blanket protection against any future copyright lawsuits regarding any of these books.

Google’s competitors think that is unfair. “It doesn’t seem right that you should kind of get a prize for violating a large series of copyrights,” Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos told a conference audience n June. The Justice Department also doesn’t like it and signaled it would oppose the settlement.

Which leaves us where we are today, with Google and the Author’s Guild renegotiating minor changes to try to satisfy the judge who needs to approve the settlement. Schmidt argued today that while the settlement is not perfect, it is worth trying to save: “The goal is to get all the books available and make sure the authors are compensated. The settlement was not a total solution, it was the best we could do.”

He also made the case that it will be good for consumers. “The scenario that is in front of us is probably the best outcome for someone who is looking for information that is not otherwise available,” he said.

Brin was equally defiant. His attitude seemed to be that Google has gone to great lengths to digitize millions of books, and if competitors don’t like that they should scan their own books. “The companies that are making objections about out of print books,” he said, “are doing nothing for out-of-print books, like Microsoft and Amazon. I guess they scanned 15 books.” They’ve actually scanned a little more than that, but the bigger point is that they don’t have any economic incentive to scan them. Nobody wants to buy these books (hence, they are out of print). But they are valuable in the aggregate to a search engine.

Schmidt noted that if they did not like the settlement, they should “make an alternative proposal that solves the problem.”

I asked how hard would it be to extend the terms of the settlement to other book digitizers so that everyone would benefit equally. “It would be legally impossible,” Brin stated. “You are looking at this as an either/or. [Our settlement] does not preclude other settlements, and will make legislation more likely. The companies complaining now, if they were engaged in the digitization process we were doing, digitizing 10 million books, there would be nothing stopping them from achieving the same thing.”

Does that sound like someone who is about to give in?

Photo credit: Flickr/Rob Milsom