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September 8, 2009

How to understand the objections just filed in the Google settlement

The time has now passed for authors to opt out of the settlement. However, we can still hope that Judge Chin will decline to approve it in its current form.

Today was the last day to file objections and briefs, and those that were filed mostly focused on an issue originally raised by attorney-author Scott Gant: that most of the authors who will be bound by the settlement terms were illegally drawn into the class.

Let me, as a non-lawyer, explain my understanding of this, as simply as I can.

On the same day the settlement was announced, the Authors Guild amended the class action complaint to immensely expand the Plaintiff (allegedly wronged party) class from where it had been: all those with a copyright interest in a book in the U Mich library, where Google had scanned all the books.

The newly amended complaint, which coincided with the announced settlement,  included in the Plaintiff class EVERYONE with a U.S. copyright interest in a book, not just those whose books had been infringed.

Why do Gant and most of the current crop of objectors claim this is illegal?  Because a lawsuit’s Plaintiffs have to have a valid complaint against a Defendant. Those whose books were not scanned by Google have no valid legal complaint. They aren’t affected.

The effect when the Authors Guild amended its complaint to expand the Plaintiff class was to sweeten the deal for Google, the Defendant. It gave Google the future right to scan books it hadn’t yet scanned and to circumvent copyright law (and, apparently, privately negotiated book contracts), and gain significant future control of all books.

In exchange, the Authors Guild got whatever it negotiated from Google, which we don’t (and probably won’t) know.

That’s a commercial transaction, not a settlement of a legal claim. And that’s the theme running through objections filed earlier by Scott Gant and today by Microsoft, Yahoo, Consumer Watchdog,  and a group of authors called the Bloom objectors.

Shorter explanation of the objections’ basis: it’s as if Search Engine X infringed my copyright but not yours. But in settling the case, I made a deal with Search Engine X that it could have your future rights along with mine, in exchange for something else I wanted.

Do you think it would be fair for you to be forced into such a deal? I don’t either. And, aside from a dozen other arguments that could be made, I hope that Judge Chin recognizes the inherent injustice of such a deal and stops it right there.

- Anita Bartholomew

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