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Google Books Fight Escalates Despite Concessions

The Google Books settlement has become the company's most contentious undertaking since its failed deal to partner with Yahoo.

As the window for comments on the Google Books settlement closed, Google and the publishing industry plaintiffs in the case made concessions to European publishers and authors and agreed to grant two seats on the board of the planned Book Rights Registry to non-U.S. representatives.

The job of the Registry -- a creation of the $125 million settlement -- will be to identify copyrighted books that Google has scanned and to distribute any royalty due to the books' authors or representatives.

Following a Monday hearing on the Google Books settlement in Brussels, Google said that it, in conjunction with U.S. publishing industry plaintiffs, had sent a letter to several European publishing associations to affirm that Google would only display digitized texts of books under copyright in Europe to U.S. Internet users if authorized to do so by rights holders. The letter, a Google spokesperson said, also promised that there would be non-U.S. seats on the Book Registry board.

"As we said we listen carefully to all concerns of stakeholders around the globe and work hard to achieve the common goal of bringing back to life millions of lost books in a way that serves the interest of all," said a Google spokesperson via e-mail.

Yet serving the interest of all may not be possible, given that the Google Books settlement has become the focus of competing interests.

Microsoft, having abandoned its book scanning effort last year for its lack of commercial promise, doesn't want Google to find the pot of gold that it gave up on. And Amazon, a publishing power in its own right that's nurturing a nascent e-books ecosystem of software and hardware, doesn't want Google to prosper as a book seller either.

The settlement has continued to draw fire from a variety of interest groups up to the end of the comment period, Tuesday morning, set by the court. Before the deadline, the National Writers Union filed an objection to the settlement, characterizing it as unfair to writers and an abuse of the law.

"We must defend writers' legal, economic, and moral rights," said National Writers Union President Larry Goldbetter in a statement. "We can't let Google or any mega-corporation steal our work, re-publish it and sell ads around it without permission and paying us only a pittance."

Also on Tuesday, a coalition of over two dozen authors and publishers, in conjunction with privacy and civil rights groups including the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the American Civil Liberties Union, filed a brief opposed to the settlement for its lack of privacy protection for readers.

"I believe that the fear of tracking will create a chilling effect on my readers and reduce my readership, and therefore my revenue, from these books," said Bruce Schneier, a computer security expert, in a statement. "Moreover, I write these books in order to participate in the public debate on security issues. Reduced readership negatively impacts my expressive interests as an author."

Google is not without its supporters, who have promoted the settlement as a way to increase access to knowledge. Last week, the company responded to the vigorous campaign against the settlement by releasing its Privacy Policy for Google Books. The company hopes to assuage fears about unconstrained surveillance of readers.

The Computer & Communication Industry Association, a tech industry trade group, on Tuesday sided with Google and rebutted charges that the settlement would grant Google a monopoly in online books.

"This settlement will increase competition for online book sales, and among books themselves," said Ed Black, president and CEO of the CCIA, in a statement. "The legal framework promised by this settlement would help erase legal uncertainty and encourage others to enter the market and compete with Google, for the good of readers and rightsholders."

The Justice Department has been looking into the deal and has yet to weigh in on whether it might move to block the settlement on antitrust grounds. All eyes are now on October 7, when the judge overseeing the Google Books case will conduct a hearing on the fairness of the settlement.

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