US copyright suit against Google to benefit EA too

Monday July 6 2009

A Google book search. Illustration/JOSEPH NGARI

A Google book search. Illustration/JOSEPH NGARI 


United States authors and publishers who filed a class action lawsuit against Google, for allegedly violating their copyrights have agreed to a landmark settlement that could significantly benefit their counterparts in East Africa too. 

The settlement, subject to court approval, will authorise Google to scan in-copyright books and inserts and maintain an electronic database of books.

The settlement follows a dispute between the authors and publishers and Google over a claim that Google had violated their copyrights by scanning in-copyright books and inserts and displaying excerpts without permission, a claim Google denied in an advertisement recently.

According to the notice, the settlement will not only affect US authors and publishers but even those in other continents. “If you are a rights holder who is a national of, or is otherwise, in a country other than the US, you are likely to own a US copyright if your book was published in the United States,” reads part of the advertisement.

For those whose books were published outside the US, their copyrights may be affected if their country has copyright relations with the US, in this case, the signatories to the Bern Convention.

Second, a publisher outside the US but who had copyright relations with the US at the time of the book’s publication will also reap from the development.


Since March this year, all the five East African Community partners states — Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Rwanda and Burundi —had copyright relations with the US.

In a move that is likely to increase sales of books, Google will place advertisements on a page dedicated to a book and make “other commercial uses of books.”

But the copyright holders, referred to as rights holders, will have a right to amend instructions to Google regarding any of these uses.

In an establishment referred to as Book Rights registry, the group will pay a determined settlement to rights holders, approximated at 63 per cent of revenues from the use of scanned materials.

“Google will also pay $34.5 million to establish and fund the initial operations of the registry and for notice and settlement costs,” reads part of the advertisement. Previously, Google had set aside $45 million “for cash payments to rights holders of books and inserts that it uses on or before May 5, 2009.”

The lawsuit followed Google’s highly publicised Google Library Project after it entered into agreements with a number of libraries to digitise books and “other writings in those libraries” collections in 2004.

Today, Google has digitised over seven million books, including millions of books that are still in copyright in the US. East Africa’s lucrative book publishing industry has been losing millions of shillings annually through book piracy.

The main target of the entrenched pirates being high school literature set books.

And it is not only the publishers and book sellers who are losing out in this murky business, but also the writers since they do not get royalties from the pirated copies.

Kenya’s renowned fiction writer Prof Ngugi wa Thiong’o is among those who have lost millions of shillings through book piracy.

Book pirates have however not been deterred by incessant crackdowns by the copyright society officials, leading book publishers and the police to intervene, an act attributable to weak copyright laws in the region.

According to the African Copyright and Access to Knowledge (ACA2K) network, Kenya, Uganda and South Africa are among the African countries with inadequate copyright laws and which “do not address the needs of education and digital environment.”

In a conference held in Nairobi in May this year, ACA2K called on East African countries to amend their copyright laws to reflect current international requirements.

“Majority of East African copyright laws remain relatively untested. In some cases, colonial statutes have only been recently amended to reflect developments at the international level,” a report by the network says. “This creates the attendant problem of a thin file of case law relating to copyright and in turn means that the interpretation of potentially access-providing provisions is yet unclear,” the report adds.

According to ACA2K, the advent of the Internet has created significant opportunity for greater access to knowledge which now calls for regulation of copyright in the digital environment.

In Morocco, Egypt and Kenya, anti-circumvention provisions have been implemented in the law along with recognition of technological protection measures.