Google Digital Book Deal Condemned by US Copyright Office

The nation’s top copyright official made a blistering attack on Thursday on a controversial legal settlement that would let Google create a huge online library and bookstore.

Testifying before the House Judiciary Committee, Marybeth Peters, the U.S. register of copyrights, said the settlement between Google and groups representing authors and publishers amounted to an end-run around copyright law that would wrest control of books from authors and other right holders.

Peters, the first government official to address the settlement in detail, said it would allow Google to profit from the work of others without prior consent and that it could put “diplomatic stress” on the United States because it affected foreign authors whose rights are protected by international treaties.

But David Drummond, Google’s chief legal officer, who also testified at the hearing, defended the agreement saying it let authors retain control of their books and would expand access to millions of out-of-print books that are largely hidden in libraries.

In a concession that appears intended to allay complaints that the class-action settlement would grant Google quasi-exclusive rights to profit from millions of books, Drummond said that Google would allow rivals like Amazon or Barnes & Noble to sell online digital copies of out-of-print books that Google has scanned from libraries.

The $125 million settlement, which is subject to court approval, would resolve suits filed in 2005 by the Authors Guild and the Association of American Publishers against Google over its plan to digitize millions of books from libraries without approval from copyright holders.

The settlement would protect Google from liability and would establish a registry administered by authors and publishers. In concert with Google, the registry would sell access to those books to individuals and libraries. The revenue would be split among Google, authors and publishers.

Peters said that in granting something like a “compulsory license,” a requirement that rights owners license works to others, the settlement essentially usurped the authority of Congress and skirted deliberations.

“In essence, the proposed settlement would give Google a license to infringe first and ask questions later, under the imprimatur of the court,” Peters wrote in her prepared testimony.

Her opinion is important because it could be reflected in a brief expected from the Justice Department this month.