The Wall Street Journal has reported that the U.S. Justice Department has sent formal demands to Google, Inc. for information about a settlement deal that would enable the search engine giant to provide millions of books online through its Google Book Search.
The Association of American Publishers and others filed a law suit in 2005 against Google Book Search after Google began scanning US books still in copyright for its database in 2004. The conflict has resulted in a settlement where Google will sell book content online and internet users will be able to search for and buy millions of titles, many of which are out of print. The $125m deal has been deemed the biggest book deal in US publishing history but awaits federal court approval and has now come under scrutiny for possible antitrust violation.
The settlement was given preliminary approval by New York District Judge John Sprizzo in October of last year with a scheduled hearing for June 11, 2009. The speed with which the time table was laid out surprised some as the hearing was scheduled for less than a month after the deadline to file comments on the settlement. Subsequent protesting of the settlement lead to a decision by New York District Judge Denny Chin to extend the objection deadline to Sept. 7, 2009 and the hearing to approve the settlement to October 12, 2009.
Those in support of the settlement argue that it will tremendously aid the publishing industry and society by making books, especially hard to find books, more accessible. However, the argument on the other side is that deal will concentrate too much power in a single entity. The concern is that Google will gain a monopoly over too many books, especially those whose copyright holders cannot be identified. The deal gives Google exclusive rights to these books, called orphan works, as Google will have the right to display and sell these books and save any profit for five years in the event the copyright holder appears. Other companies however will not have this right and would be subject to copyright violation and fines for doing a similar display of orphan works. Additionally, the Google Book Search system will know which books a user has searched, read and purchased and that could raise privacy issues.
Under the deal, consumers using Google books search will be offered free samples of chosen titles, with the option to buy more. It will also allow users to download any of the books already scanned into Google’s database. The Book Rights Registry will take payments from Google and (after a fee) distribute them to authors and publishers. The agreement is similar Apple iTunes music store. The agreement will primarily target universities and organizations which will pay large subscriptions on behalf of students and researchers.
Google Book Search has accumulated and digitalized around 10 million books so far, though only a small portion of most books in copyright are shown online. Google also accounts for about two-thirds of U.S. web searches and brings in about one-third of the money spent on internet advertising in the U.S. This activity has drawn attention by rivals and regulators. Many consider this recent investigation as evidence of efforts by the Obama administration to increase the level of antitrust scrutiny of the technology industry.