September 4 marks the deadline for authors and publishers to opt out of a proposed settlement allowing Google, Inc. to move forward with its plan to scan millions of books and make them available on an online database.

The settlement, reached last October after two years of negotiations, would involve lawsuits filed against Google for copyright infringement by requiring it to establish a system of identifying and compensating copyright holders.

However, as the September 4 deadline draws near, more and more opponents of the deal are speaking up. Recently, organizations such as the National Writers Union and entertainment agency William Morris Endeavor have come out against it. The controversy is likely to continue as few appear to understand all the details of the over 300-page settlement document.

Smart people, major players that are sophisticated in the ways of publishing, are still at loggerheads,” said Ted Weinstein, a San Francisco literary agent. According to Weinstein, these “major players” are not only arguing about the merits of the deal, “but still expressing disagreement about what exactly it will do. That’s a problem.”

Most of the controversy surrounds so-called “orphan works,” which refers to out-of-print books still under copyright. Those that want to distribute such books usually have difficulty finding the rights holder because of sparse ownership records, thus leaving the work in a sort of legal limbo.

Harvard law professor and copyright expert Lawrence Lessig has been working to solve this problem. As the Wall Street Journal recently reported, he has argued that the Google settlement should push Congress into remedying “the core inefficiency that has turned this extraordinary effort to expand access to knowledge into a federal case.”

Lessig recommends returning to earlier laws that required copyright holders to periodically register ownership of their work for a modest fee. If the holder does not do so, the book would pass into the common domain and be available to Google or anyone else. Lessig believes that this would quickly result in “a registry with a clear list of property rights owners.”

The settlement is still subject to the approval of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York and the final hearing is scheduled for October 7. In the meantime, many experts believe that opposition to the settlement will grow.

Chad Burchard

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