Google settles book search dispute, joins Microsoft and Yahoo on censorship standard

Two long-running disputes involving the Web's most prominent search sites appear to be nearing resolution this week, with wins for both human rights and book lovers.

First, Microsoft, Google and Yahoo have jointly announced the completion of guidelines covering standards of operation in countries with laws that conflict with our own standards of free speech and human rights.

The Global Network Initiative, in the works for about two years, will give companies structures for dealing with repressive regimes such as China, which censor Web access and demand that companies doing business in those nations cooperate with those restrictions.

The text of the initiative will be released to the Web on Wednesday. So far those three companies are the only signatories, though a report in the New York Times suggests that France Telecom and Vodafone -- both European telcos -- are considering the plan.

Around the globe, Net companies have repeatedly run into trouble as they attempt to balance the need to comply with local laws and the sense of repugnance many observers feel when they see what "compliance" means in practical terms.

Most memorably, Yahoo's rather fulsome cooperation with Chinese officials looking to identify and eventually jail business reporter Shi Tao earned Yahoo CEO Jerry Yang and his people a serious tongue-lashing from a Congressional committee, not to mention the immortal sobriquet 'moral pygmy.' (It was a birthday present.)

Initiative specifics were not entirely revealed at press time. But the agreement will include guidelines for how law-enforcement requests must be filed with the companies, and will provide a forum where companies can compare notes on attempts at censorship, with an eye toward coordinated response -- perhaps on the theory that sometimes it's easier not to come off like a pygmy if you're standing on the shoulders of confederates.

Meanwhile, Google has agreed to pay $125 million in settlement money plus ongoing royalty fees to lay to rest two lawsuits connected to Google Book Search, their massive scanning project. The arrangement, which must be ratified by the presiding judge, not only ends the lawsuit but actually expands the amount of information available to Web users.

The scanning project began in 2004. Members of the Association of American Publishers, along with the Authors Guild, sued in 2005, claiming that the creation of scans violated their various copyrights -- despite Google's invocation of traditional fair-use guidelines for excerpting copyrighted text. But a statement today on the Guild Web site is relatively honest about the Guild's real motivation for pursuing the case. Roy Blount Jr., the organization's current president, still dismisses the Google citation of fair use, but "if you're willing to cut authors in for their fair share, then it would be our pleasure to work with you."

Blount's statement also includes a slap at Wikipedia and a fretful aside about the editing of the organization's press release (PDF available here) as well as a copyright notice on the announcement. But the gist is this: Writers whose books were already scanned can get $60 or more for their trauma, and more money will flow to them through a new royalty-collection organization called the Book Rights Registry, which Google will pay to set up and launch. Authors can choose not to make their works available in search and will work with Google to decide what their literary stylings are worth.

Google's efforts on behalf of readers, however, were clearly effective. The amount of text visible to searchers will increase to as much as several pages, up from a few lines. Public libraries will assume a vital role in delivering more text, including view-only rights to full texts of out-of-print, in-copyright books.

Books already in the public domain will continue to be available online as free PDFs. Books that can be viewed at the library can be printed for a small fee. The company, which describes the agreement as "historic," was enthusiastic about the system's potential to help readers discover out-of-print books and other high-quality information.

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