It is now well over two years since the Authors Guild and the Association of American Book Publishers reached a $125 million settlement of lawsuits against Google to establish a registry and royalty system that would monitor the digital distribution of books and other material protected by copyright. Predictably, for so complex an accord, there were critics, including the Justice Department and the agreement was resubmitted to Judge Denny Chin, then of the Federal District Court in New York who held a hearing on the pact last February. The judge can either accept or reject the settlement, but he cannot amend it. So far, he has done neither. In the meantime, Chin was promoted to the U.S. Second Circuit Court of Appeals, but took the case with him. His office refuses to say when an opinion will be ready.
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Given the pace of business activity, the case may well seem outdated. Google has continued to digitize books in the millions. It has also launched Google Editions, which offers eBooks for sale and supports retailers in their own eBook marketing initiatives. Last week, in a major management shake-up, Eric Schmidt announced he was stepping down as Google's CEO. But nonetheless, the core issues in the dispute -- managing the distribution of eBooks by libraries and the dominance of Google as the ultimate repository of every book ever published -- remain unresolved. If Chin approves the settlement, it is virtually certain that advocacy groups such as the Open Book Alliance and Google's competitors for digital clout will appeal. If he rejects the settlement, authors and publishers will confront the issue they faced at the outset: protecting their rights against the unrestricted access that libraries, in particular, favor (after all, distribution to all comers is the role of libraries). Publishers and the Authors Guild concede that appealing a rejection would be very difficult, given the cost of litigation and the long-shot odds that Chin would be overruled.
If you've read this far, let me reward you with a judgment, lacking, of course the authority or prodigious consideration of Judge Chin's decision. Whatever the outcome, the original settlement and its revisions remain a landmark in the dizzying transformation of information from the traditional means of delivery of printed material to today's increasingly digital options. Why? Because Google originally argued that it had the right, which it declared was a public service, to digitize everything without regard to paying the content creators of copyrighted material. Once Google conceded that was not the case in the 2008 agreement, that particular contention was resolved.