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Judge rejects Google Books settlement, but the debate is far from over

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Citing copyright and privacy concerns, among others, U.S. Circuit Judge Denny Chin rejected the $125 million Google Books Amendment Settlement Agreement (ASA) between Google and book publishers Tuesday that would have created a “universal library” of sorts, permitting Google Books to put millions of volumes, many of which are rare or otherwise difficult to find, on the web. Judge Chin admonished Google for scanning copyrighted documents from university libraries — a project begun in 2004 for which Google has already scanned more than 15 million books — while still acknowledging that “the digitization of books and the creation of a universal digital library would benefit many.”

Echoing the debate over universal healthcare, the judge took issue with the settlement’s opt-out structure: Under the proposed conditions, all authors would be covered by the ASA by default unless they consciously decided to opt out. Judge Chin suggested he would be amenable to provisions that would give authors the decision to opt in.

Speaking on behalf of several publishers in support of the settlement, including McGraw-Hill and Simon & Schuster, Macmillian chief John Sargent expressed disappointment in the judge’s decision, noting that the settlement “has the potential to unlock online access to millions of out-of-print books in the U.S. and expand it for titles in-print while acknowledging and compensating the rights and interests of authors and copyright owners and enhancing our ability to distribute our content online.” However, they see the silver lining, noting that the decision lays out guidelines to a version of the settlement that will ultimately gain approval.

Thousands of authors have already opted out of the Google Books settlement, citing concerns over ownership. As novelist Marika Cobbold put it, “It would be like handing over my babies to a babysitter I’d never met, [and] I couldn’t understand what was in it for me. I love Google, and in principle making information accessible is wonderful, but things are moving so fast, and authors are losing so much control over what we’ve done, that my fear was who knows, in five to 10 years’ time, how this information could be used?”