Sunday, January 10, 2010

Chinese authors challenge Google

As an author, Google's arrogant assumption that they have the right to copy any author's work for free to their digital library (Google Books) worries me. Unsurprisingly, Google's action is being challenged everywhere.

In the latest case, Mian Mian, a famous Chinese author has sued Google for an alleged copyright infringement in a Beijing court. She has accused Google of illegally copying her novel Acid Lovers into their digital library. She is seeking $8000 in compensation.

Google is already under attack by the Chinese authors' association who are accusing the search giant of illegally adding hundreds of thousands of Chinese-written books to Google Books, a highly controversial digital library project.

Publishers and authors in the US, Germany, France and other countries have also objected to Google's plan to digitize millions of books for free. Google reached a settlement with the US authors in 2005 when it agreed to pay $125 million to resolve pending cases and agreed to pay part of the revenue to authors and publishers from advertising and sales resulting from their books included in Google Books.

This followed, last year, by a very controversial step by Google where it declared that it will unilaterally digitize books unless the respective authors decide to opt out. In other words, the onus lies on the author or publisher to opt out. If the author does not opt out, his/her book will be digitized by Google without consultation or permission. And Google went ahead with this plan devised by its lawyers.

China Written Works Copyrights Society, a non profit group for protecting authors' rights, has challenged Google's heavy handed approach to digitize books in this fashion. The Society wants Google to apologize and pay compensation for copying its members' books. Google has had multiple rounds of negotiations with the Society to resolve the matter, the latest meeting scheduled for coming Tuesday. If the Chinese group manages to force Google to pay compensation, that will encourage writers associations in other countries to sue and seek a rightful compensation.

Critics of Google's scheme say that rather than automatic Opt In, Google should have adopted an automatic Opt Out plan. In other words, it should not copy a book to its library unless it obtains a written Opt In from the author or the publisher, depending on who owns the copyright.

Google is not the only company which is using automatic Opt In trick to further its own cause. There is a growing trend among companies to use this as a short cut to shore up their profits and undermine the consumers or other stakeholders.

What is ethical way of doing it? What is the right thing to do? Automatic opt in OR automatic opt out?

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