Google Apologizes To Chinese Over Unlicensed Scanning

Dennis Faas's picture

Google has made a formal and public apology to Chinese authors after including their works in its book search project without permission. It's a striking contrast to the way the firm responded to similar complaints in the United States and Europe.

Google Book Search involves scanning books with optical character recognition so that the text can be searched. The firm argues that this is simply to make it easier for users to find information in books and that they are limited to seeing the relevant pages rather than it being a free way to read an entire book.

The firm has consistently maintained this behavior is legitimate, even where the book is still covered by copyright, as it comes under fair use provisions which exist, for example, to allow attributed quotations from a book.

Stateside Settlement Could Lead to Monopoly

That's not been a view shared by many authors and publishers, however.

In the US, Google has been in lengthy discussions to settle a lawsuit brought by such groups. That settlement itself has proven controversial, as it would give Google the exclusive rights to reproduce so-called orphan titles -- those which are in copyright but where the rights holder isn't known or can't be traced -- in their entirety. It's disputed whether or not that constitutes a monopoly and whether such rights can be awarded without the holder's permission.

The firm also recently lost a case in France, being ordered to pay more than $400,000 to one publishing group. The case doesn't affect the US legal situation but might prompt similar claims by other French publishers. (Source:

Google Admits Wrong

In China though, Google appears less combative. It has been in discussions with the Chinese Writers Association since last fall and recently received its first lawsuit from an author, asking for just $8,900. The CWA has today posted a statement from Google reading, in part:

"As a result of the divergence of copyright laws in the U.S. and China, our actions irritated Chinese writers. After talks and negotiations in recent months, we realized our communication with Chinese authors was not good enough. Google is willing to apologize for its improper activities." (Source:

The firm didn't say why it was so keen to admit wrongdoing and quell potential hostilities. It may simply be the sheer size of the Chinese market that changed its approach, both for the potential costs if it lost widespread lawsuits, and the potential benefits if it can strike a deal with author groups.

Google Hopes to Avoid Censorship

It's also likely Google wants to avoid conflict in China as it will need to limit state censorship if a Chinese edition of Book Search is to be of any real use.

There is certainly some irony in the situation, given that some Chinese citizens hardly have an admirable reputation when it comes to respecting tech-related copyright (though the government has cracked down more recently). But, of course, two wrongs don't make a right.

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