Google Books Dispute Takes Unpredicted Twist

Dennis Faas's picture

Five universities are being sued for their part in scanning millions of copyrighted books. It's an unexpected development in the ongoing legal wrangling over Google's Book Search service.

Google began scanning books and first made them available to the public in 2004, with the idea of making it possible to search for phrases in printed books in the same way as on web pages. However, this led to legal action from groups representing both authors and publishers who complained that Google had scanned books without permission.

Deal Brought Into Question

The two sides eventually reached a settlement in 2008, but the deal has yet to get final court approval and formally end the case. One hitch with the settlement is the question of whether the groups involved have the right to make a deal on behalf of all authors.

The second big sticking point is so-called "orphan" titles: those that are still covered by copyright but where the rights-holder either isn't known or can't be traced.

Under the deal, Google would have exclusive permission to print such books and pay the relevant royalties into a fund for all authors. However, critics say Google has no right to effectively take ownership of the copyright like this, and that such an agreement would amount to rewriting the copyright laws. The last judge to rule on the case rejected the agreement, saying such changes could only be made by Congress. (Source:

Universities Challenged Over Seven Million Scans

Now, the US Authors Guild has joined with sister organizations in Canada and Australia, plus eight individual authors, to sue five universities over the issue. The suit claims that universities in California, Cornell, Indiana, Michigan and Wisconsin worked together with Google to scan up to seven million books that are still in copyright.

There are two elements to the lawsuit. The first is an objection to the scanning itself: the authors argue that now that the digital files exist, there's a risk they could be stolen or copied, making it easy for less scrupulous sources to exploit the content.

The second issue is that the universities plan to make all "orphan" titles in the collection available for free download by students: the authors claim the universities have no right to do this. (Source:

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