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What's at stake in Google's plan to digitize all the world's books

Google, publishers, and authors asked a judge for another 60 days Wednesday to hammer out a deal to make Google Books a reality. The agreement could shape the nascent industry.

By Staff writer / June 1, 2011

Staff members at the University of California at Santa Cruz McHenry Library truck a small portion of the thousands of books UCSC will send to Google to be scanned for their Google Books search engine.

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Los Angeles

Google's long-running effort to digitize the world’s books was back in court Wednesday, as a judge met with the Internet giant and its class-action foes in the publishing world over a scheme that could shape the future of publishing in the Internet era.

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Earlier this year, Google thought it had struck a deal with the Authors' Guild and a coalition of publishers over how it would proceed with its plan, which it began in 2002 and publishers had challenged in court in three years later. But in March, both Circuit Judge Denny Chin and the antitrust arm of the US Department of Justice rejected the deal, saying it would give Google a virtual monopoly in many aspects of online publishing.

At stake are the rules that will govern the nascent online publishing industry and how it might evolve. Critics want some assurance that Google Books won't put authors out of business by making everything available online for free. Some authors and publishers, by contrast, see Google Books as an invaluable – and potentially profitable – way to keep obscure and out-of-print books vital and available.

For Judge Chin and the Justice Department regulators, however, Google's bid to scan, post, and profit from millions of out-of-print books with unclear copyright claims – so called "unclaimed" or "orphan" books – runs the risk of running roughshod over an industry that is only now beginning to find its feet.

As Chin put it in March: The deal “would give Google a de facto monopoly over unclaimed works” as well as “a significant advantage over competitors, rewarding it for engaging in wholesale copying of copyrighted works without permission.”

The path ahead

Lawyers representing both Google and the coalition of authors and publishers met in a New York courtroom Wednesday to update the judge on how they are doing in addressing these concerns. "We have been working closely with the authors and publishers to explore a number of options in response to the court's decision," a Google spokesperson said in an e-mailed statement. "At today's status hearing, we asked the court for more time to discuss those options."

The court granted a 60-day extension.

The judge laid out a road map of issues in March, including whether to enact an opt-in or an opt-out system for authors whose works are being digitized. This is a primary concern for some authors.

As Google pursues its mission to “organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful, it comes into direct conflict with the creators of that information who wish to make a living,” says David Runyon, a librarian at Harrisburg University of Science and Technology in Pennsylvania, via e-mail.

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