Google Talks Back on Book Search Settlement

Google is attempting to explain why its settlement with the Authors Guild and the Association of American Publishers, currently under investigation by the Justice Department, does not represent an antitrust violation. Critics have argued that the terms of the settlement prevent potential rivals such as Yahoo and Microsoft from competing fairly in the space.

Google has reacted to reports that it was in talks with the Department of Justice about possible antitrust action stemming from its settlement with the Authors Guild and the Association of American Publishers over Google's growing digital library.

In an April 29 posting on the Google Public Policy Blog, the search engine giant cast the settlement as one that gives users more choice.

"The settlement won't just expand access to out-of-print books," wrote Adam Smith, director of product management for Google Book Search. "Because authors and publishers will have the ability to let users preview and purchase their in-print books through Google Book Search, readers will have even more options for accessing in-print books than they have today."

Smith claimed that the settlement, under which Google can scan copyrighted books for online use and potential sale, will expand the general availability of books in foreign languages, and allow users to access a wider variety of books via public libraries or an institutional subscription. Users who want an electronic copy of a particular volume for themselves can pay for it, or, if the book is in the public domain, download it for free.

"It's important to understand what readers stand to gain," Smith added in the blog.

However, recent questioning by the Justice Department of the parties involved in the settlement has led to speculation that the whole agreement could be in jeopardy.

According to the New York Times, attorneys for the Justice Department have been chatting for a few weeks with Google, the Authors Guild and the Association of American Publishers. The Justice Department has made no announcements and the talks do not necessarily indicate that any antitrust action is forthcoming.

Under the terms of the original settlement, Google can be offered the same negotiating terms as any future competitor for digital texts, a clause that some critics feel gives the company an unfair advantage over potential rivals in the space such as Microsoft and Yahoo.

The nonprofit group Consumer Watchdog publicly called on the Attorney General in early April 2009 to examine both the settlement and Google's plan to scan "orphan books," which are out-of-print volumes and remain under copyright but whose rights holders cannot be found.

Google recently made its public-domain offerings, typically downloadable in PDF format, available in ePub format for the Sony Reader, increasing Sony's eLibrary to some 600,000 digital volumes, versus's 245,000-book Kindle library.

Google already holds a fairly substantial advantage when it comes to online digital libraries. Its closest rival in the space, Microsoft, shut down its Live Search Books and Live Search Academic projects in May 2008 due to costs.