Authors wary of Google proposal

A union representing Canadian writers says it’s leery of Google’s proposed move into digital sales of out-of-print books.

TORONTO — A union representing Canadian writers says it’s leery of Google’s proposed move into digital sales of out-of-print books.

On Friday, Google moved closer to settling a U.S. class-action lawsuit with the Authors Guild and Association of American Publishers.

The proposed agreement would allow Google Books to host scores of copyrighted out-of-print titles, offer previews of the content, and make them available for sale.

The agreement, which still needs court approval, would only cover American users but a Google spokesman says the service could be available in Canada sometime next year.

The service could mean a new revenue stream for Canadian publishers, but the Writers’ Guild of Canada says any excitement it has about the opportunity is being tempered by the “unknowns.”

In a letter distributed to its members on Saturday, the union said it cannot currently endorse the deal, although it does address some concerns that had been previously raised.

“There are many details and advantages and disadvantages to the settlement and we need to know how they’re going to play out through the American courts before we can really take a stronger position on it,” union executive director Deborah Windsor said in an interview.

More discussion is needed about licensing fees for libraries that offer free access to Google’s stable of digital books, and about the sales of so-called orphan works, written by authors who can’t be tracked down, states the union letter signed by chairwoman Erna Paris.

“Books already digitized by Google will become ‘orphans’ if the rights holders do not sign up … in order to claim them,” states the letter.

“No provision has been added to the amended settlement agreement that would require rightsholders to sign up before further works can be digitized and licensed by Google.”

The deal calls for the royalties from orphan works to be held for up to 10 years and if the rightful copyright holder can still not be found, the proceeds would be donated to literary charities.

Paul Aiken, executive director of the U.S. Authors Guild, estimates orphan works would represent less than ten per cent of Google’s digital sales.

The Canadian Publishers’ Council, which represents companies that market to schools, libraries, professional and reference markets, is already working with Google.

“We decided to move forward as an association and seize an opportunity to participate … with Google and this has been a very good experience for us,” said executive director, Jackie Hushion.

Richard Sarnoff, co-chairman of Bertelsmann, Inc., which owns Random House, said the Google deal is not about “setting up the digital future of publishing.”

“This is about not leaving these old out-of-print books behind in that future,” he said.

Google Books is already accessible to Canadians, offering full access and downloads of public domain books and previews of more current works.

For example, three of the five novels shortlisted for the Scotiabank Giller Prize are available to preview, including the winner, Linden MacIntyre’s The Bishop’s Man.

The site also hosts back issues of dozens of prominent magazines including Billboard, Life, Men’s Health and Women’s Health and Popular Science.

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