Court Rejects Google Books Settlement — Now What?

by on March 22, 2011 · 3 comments

Today, the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York rejected a proposed class action settlement agreement between Google, the Authors Guild, and a coalition of publishers. Had it been approved, the settlement would have enabled Google to scan and sell millions of books, including out of print books, without getting explicit permission from the copyright owner. (Back in 2009, I submitted an amicus brief to the court regarding the privacy implications of the settlement agreement, although I didn’t take a position on its overall fairness.)

While the court recognized in its ruling (PDF) that the proposed settlement would “benefit many” by creating a “universal digital library,” it ultimately concluded that the settlement was not “fair, adequate, and reasonable.” The court further concluded that addressing the troubling absence of a market in orphan works is a “matter for Congress,” rather than the courts.

Both chambers of Congress are currently working hard to tackle patent reform and rogue websites. Whatever one thinks about the Google Books settlement, Judge Chin’s ruling today should serve as a wake-up call that orphan works legislation should also be a top priority for lawmakers.

Today, millions of expressive works cannot be enjoyed by the general public because their copyright owners cannot be found, as we’ve frequently pointed out on these pages (1, 2, 3, 4). This amounts to a massive black hole in copyright, severely undermining the public interest. Unfortunately, past efforts in Congress to meaningfully address this dilemma have failed.

In 2006, the U.S. Copyright Office recommended that Congress amend the Copyright Act by adding an exception for the use and reproduction of orphan works contingent on a “reasonably diligent search” for the copyright owner. The proposal also would have required that users of orphan works pay “reasonable compensation” to copyright owners if they emerge.

A similar solution to the orphan works dilemma was put forward by Jerry Brito and Bridget Dooling. They suggested in a 2006 law review article that Congress establish a new affirmative defense in copyright law that would permit a work to be reproduced without authorization if no rightsholder can be found following a reasonable, good-faith search.

  • Jardinero1

    My spin on it is that Google is actually being too nice and is acting in good faith. The reality is that Google could very well just begin scanning and publishing any works it thinks are orphaned with few consequences.

    If the work is truly orphaned – no problem. If the work is not orphaned and the rightsholder does not bring suit – no problem. If the work is not orphaned and the rightsholder comes forward – Google settles with him/her or ceases publication of the disputed work. If I was the rights holder of a work so neglected it is perceived to be orphaned, I would be very glad that Google would attempt to publish it. Yet, very few true rightsholders are going to come forward, much less be able to prove their bona fides.

    I hope that Google proceeds with the project in the absence of a settlement.

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