Google Receives Federal Request for Book Settlement Info

By Nicholas Kolakowski  |  Posted 2009-06-10 Print this article Print

The U.S. Justice Department is reportedly investigating Google's digital books settlement with publishers, which Google claims will make millions of volumes accessible to all but which has critics crying antitrust issues. Google's books project has run into opposition from a number of groups arguing that it gives the search engine company too much control over content with little oversight.

Google has received Civil Investigative Demands from the U.S. Justice Department over its digital books agreement with publishers, which critics argue violates antitrust statutes. Google has been scanning books with the intent of creating a massive and searchable digital library, from which readers can purchase volumes.

A CID functions as a formal demand for information. According to David Drummond, chief legal officer for Google, the Justice Department's inquiry will proceed separately from the federal court approving the actual settlement.

"The judge's job is not to review every question that the Department of Justice might think about," Drummond told reporters, according to Reuters. He also added that Google would be open to changing the terms of the settlement "if it's a compelling argument."

Rumors about possible Justice Department probing into the matter have been drifting around for weeks, although Google has kept quiet about the exact details.

"The Department of Justice and several state attorneys general have contacted us to learn more about the impact of the settlement, and we are happy to answer their questions," Gabriel Stricker, a Google spokesperson, said in a statement. "It's important to note that this agreement is nonexclusive and, if approved by the court, stands to expand access to millions of books in the U.S."

Reports indicate that the Justice Department also sent CIDs to two publishers, including Lagardere's Hachette Book Group.

Under the settlement between Google, The Authors Guild and the Association of American Publishers, Google is guaranteed the same terms as any future competitor, such as Yahoo or Microsoft, when negotiating over digital book rights.

As part of the agreement, Google also elected to create a nonprofit Book Rights Registry that would handle digital rights issues. In an April letter to U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, John Simpson, a consumer advocate for Consumer Watchdog, claimed that the settlement was too sweeping to be enacted without government oversight.

"It is inappropriate for the resolution of a class action lawsuit to effectively create an 'anti-compete' clause [that] precludes smaller competitors from entering a market," Simpson argued in his letter.

In May, the American Library Association and Association of Research Libraries also raised objections to Google's monopoly potential in a court filing, and asked for "vigorous oversight" in the Google settlement.

Google argues that its digital books project will ultimately provide access to untold numbers of obscure or rare volumes.

Nicholas Kolakowski is a staff editor at eWEEK, covering Microsoft and other companies in the enterprise space, as well as evolving technology such as tablet PCs. His work has appeared in The Washington Post, Playboy, WebMD, AARP the Magazine, AutoWeek, Washington City Paper, Trader Monthly, and Private Air. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.

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