Internet giant Google will remove all European books currently on the market from a US agreement to digitise and sell online books that are out of print in the United States, the company said on Monday.
Concessions to European publishers come amid controversy over plans opponents say represents a "big landgrab" of the world's stock of an estimated six million out-of-print and out-of-copyright books.
The new position means books that are no longer available to US consumers but are still on sale in Europe will not now be included in its database, a Google spokeswoman said. The numbers were "hard to assess," she added.
The company will therefore have to negotiate agreements with European publishers and authors for catalogues and titles in the category concerned.
"The parties to the settlement agreement have sent a letter to several national publisher associations in Europe to clarify that books that are commercially available in Europe will be treated as commercially available under the settlement," Google said in a statement.
"Such books can only be displayed to US users if expressly authorised by rights holders," it added, as hearings got under way in Brussels on Monday to determine the European Union's response to the US deal.
Previously, rights holders within a patchwork of different copyright law frameworks across national borders were considered to have "opted in by doing nothing," according to British trade magazine The Bookseller's managing editor, Philip Jones.
Google has digitised some seven million books so far, which Jones says "people have described as a big landgrab." He stressed: "Publishers (still) want to see more clarity."
Added Jessica Sanger of the German booksellers association: "It's a step in the right direction, (but) it's not enough for our members to sleep peacefully."
About 70 percent of all published titles are estimated to have fallen out of print while remaining, somewhere, under copyright protection.
Google's letter also promised to bring a European publisher and a European author on to the board of a body created to administer the US legal settlement.
Google reached a class action settlement in October last year with the Authors Guild and the Association of American Publishers to a copyright infringement suit they filed against the Internet powerhouse in 2005.
Under the settlement, Google agreed to pay 125 million dollars (the equivalent of 87 million euros) to resolve outstanding claims and establish an independent "Book Rights Registry."
That body will provide revenue from sales and advertising to authors and publishers who agree to digitise their books.
Germany said last week it opposed the US legal settlement, although the EU broadly agrees with the general aim of dusting down out-of-print and so-called 'orphaned' books for future generations.
Brussels needs to "take a hard look at the copyright system we have on Monday in Europe," according to a statement issued by Information Society and Media Commissioner Viviane Reding and Internal Markets Commissioner Charlie McCreevy.
Amazon, Microsoft and Yahoo! joined an alliance last month opposing the US settlement. Online retail giant Amazon is a major player in the electronic book sector through its e-reader, the Kindle.
Google, whose book project is already facing anti-trust scrutiny from the US Justice Department, a court review and privacy concerns, still needs the approval of a US District Court judge, who is to hold a "fairness hearing" on the Google deal in New York on October 7.