DoJ probes Google on book-scanning deal

The US Department of Justice (DOJ) is considering investigating the antitrust issues created by Google's settlement with authors and publishers following the lawsuit against its book search tool.


The US Department of Justice (DOJ) is considering investigating the antitrust issues created by Google's settlement with authors and publishers following the lawsuit against its book search tool.

The Google Book Search Tool will see copyrighted books digitised and made available in online searches. However, after it was revealed that Google planned to share these digital copies with libraries without gaining permission, a number of companies filed lawsuits against Google.

Google eventually struck a deal with the Authors Guild and the Association of American Publishers that allowed the materials to still be made available online, but would require web users to purchase the lifetime rights to read and print scanned books searched through Google.

A source close to the case said that despite the discussions with the DOJ, Google was still moving ahead with developing a book search function in keeping with the parameters of the settlement.

The source also said that the DOJ has not informed Google that a formal investigation into the settlement will be launched, but did say that another meeting is planned. The source said he could not disclose when the next meeting will be held.

The New York Times and the Wall Street Journal both reported this week that federal lawyers have met with both Google officials and critics of the settlement , including the Internet Archive.

"The trouble is that all of this is unexplored territory - the public interest in this information being widely available online, copyrights, author compensation," said Gordon Haff, an analyst with Illuminata.

"It's all very complicated new territory. But there are legitimate concerns if Google is to become the primary gateway to all of the world's information."

If Google's vision of success is having the keys people need to access the world's information, then an antitrust lawsuit over the book search access plan could be a significant setback for the company, added Haff.

"Antitrust is an incredibly complicated area of law," he said. "There are aspects that look like Google is being given certain monopoly rights. But they've been willing to negotiate and step back a bit when these issues have arisen in the past. Things will be worked out. I don't foresee a multi-year antitrust trial on this one."

In a blog, Adam Smith, director of product management for Google Book Search, touted the settlement as a means to expand people's access to books.

"Have you ever gone to your local bookstore looking for a book only to be told that it's not there? You look for it on Amazon; they don't offer it," he said. "If you can't find them - because the only known copy is at a library on the other side of the country - you're unfortunately out of luck. Under the settlement, that will change."

Dan Olds, principle analyst with the Gabriel Consulting Group, said Google is looking at a very large potential market with the book search business. And he predicted that Google will fight tooth and nail if necessary to move forward with its plan.

"The aspect of the settlement that most interests the Justice Department is the clause that gives Google exclusive rights to works that are opted into the agreement," he explained.

"Google will have the right to either offer or not offer these works to the public, at their discretion. That gives them a lot of power in the market. Works that Google deems inappropriate might not be available to the public, and the author or publisher could be prohibited from offering the work anywhere else."

He also said that if the DOJ demands significant changes to the settlement, it could significantly cut the potential business for Google.

"This is important to Google and we can expect a full court press from them on this issue," said Olds.

"If the DOJ completely scuttled the deal, it would be a serious blow to Google's ambitions, but I still expect to see them hotly pursue this market. They're nothing if not persistent."

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