Google has publicly apologized to the Chinese Writers Association for inadequate communication with local writers over its Google Book Search project, an effort to digitize millions of texts inside various research libraries.
But contrary to multiple press reports from the likes of Bloomberg and IDG News Service, the web giant will not stop the scanning and indexing the works from Chinese authors. As has always been the case with the project, Google will exclude authors - Chinese or otherwise - if they request exclusion. But Google has in no way changed its previous policies.
As with so many Google services, Google will opt you out only if you ask to be opted out.
The company has merely extended an olive branch to the Chinese Writers Association, saying it wants to work with the authors' group to resolve complaints over the book-scanning project. In mid-November, the group sent Google a letter demanding compensation for Chinese authors whose works had been scanned without their approval - and an immediate stop to such scanning.
Google sent its apology directly to the Association last week, and the same day, a company representative read it on a news program from China's state broadcaster.
"Due to differences in understanding regarding the full scope of Google's efforts, and different interpretations of US and Chinese copyright law, [Google Book Search] has been met with dissatisfaction from some Chinese authors," reads an English language version of the Google's statement, sent to The Register by the company.
"Through discussions in recent months, we believe there are indeed areas where we could have done better to communicate to Chinese authors these differences. For this, Google wishes to express our apology to Chinese authors."
The original Chinese is here.
The letter also points out that after a request from the China Written Works Copyright Society, Google has also provided a partial list of scanned books by Chinese authors, as it works on a more complete list. "This is an unusual step for Google and one we hope is understood in the context of resolving any outstanding disputes in China," reads the English translation of Google's letter to the Chinese Writers Association.
Google contends that its project complies with copyright law because it only posts snippets of book to the web if it does not have explicit approval from the copyright holder for a complete reproduction. But Chinese authors aren't the only ones who believe Google has gone too far. In 2005, the US Authors Guild and the Association of American Publishers sued Google over the project, and though the two parties agreed to settle the suit in October 2008, this sparked more controversy.
The original settlement created a "Book Rights Registry" where authors and publishers can resolve copyright claims in exchange for a cut of Google's revenues. But it also gave Google the unique right to scan, and sell and post ads against orphan works - books whose rights holders have yet to come forward. And although other organizations could negotiate the rights to books in the Registry, the Registry alone would have the power to set prices. Many are concerned the Registry would have no incentive to keep prices down.
After much protest and an intervention from the DoJ, Google and the other parties in the case amended the settlement. The revised pact still gives Google the power to post and sell orphan works, but an independent fiduciary would retain all revenues from scanned orphans for up to 10 years. After five years, 25 per cent of these funds may be used to locate the orphan's rights holders, and after 10 years, they may be given to literacy-based charities.
But Google would still maintain the right to these orphans - something no one else would have. Google is essentially rewriting copyright law in a way that favors it above all other book sellers - though it likes to say that its settlement in no way precludes new federal legislation that would provide similar rights to others.
The revised settlement still requires approval from a federal judge, and a hearing is set for February.
In China, one author has filed a copyright infringement suit against the author for scanning her novel and posting snippets online. But Google is unbowed. "Google Books promotes and encourages book sales – helping to ensure that authors and publishers are rewarded for their creative efforts. Our goal remains bringing millions of the world's difficult-to-find, out-of-print books back to life, in addition to giving millions of new books attention through direct relationships with publishers," reads a statement from a company spokeswoman. "Google Books is fully compliant with US and Chinese law." ®