Google has reportedly been questioned by the U.S. Justice Department over whether its plans to digitize the world’s books into an online database represents a potential antitrust violation. A recent settlement guarantees Google equal terms as any competitor, such as Microsoft, in any future negotiations over digital book rights.
The Justice Department is looking into whether a deal between Google, the Author’s Guild and the Association of American Publishers represents a potential antitrust case.
As reported by The New York Times, Justice Department attorneys have been chatting over the past few weeks with Google and other parties involved in the Google Book Search settlement, which gave Google the right to scan copyrighted books for online use and potential sale in exchange for, among other concessions, creating a nonprofit Book Rights Registry to handle digital rights issues.
The questioning of Google, the Author’s Guild and the Association of American Publishers, however, does not necessarily mean that the Justice Department will attempt to scuttle the deal over antitrust issues.
No public comment has been forthcoming from Google or the Justice Department over the matter, which is still ongoing.
Earlier in April 2009, a nonprofit watchdog group called on the Department of Justice to investigate Google’s plan to scan “orphan books” into a database of digital text. "Orphan" books are out-of-print volumes that remain under copyright, but whose rights-holders cannot be found.
An advocate for Consumer Watchdog, John M. Simpson, wrote a letter to U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder asking for government intervention in Google’s settlement with the Author’s Guild and the Association of American Publishers, arguing that it should have been reviewed to see if it met "the interests of consumers."
Critics of the deal argued that Google had effectively been given a monopoly over digitized books by preventing Microsoft, Yahoo or other competitors from offering better deals to authors in the future. The settlement stated that Google would have the same terms in negotiating as any future competitor.
"The proposed settlement protects Google from such potentially damaging exposure, but provides no protection for others," Simpson argued in his letter. "This effectively is a barrier for competitors to enter the digital book business."
Google’s entrance into the digitized-book arena, which has become increasingly competitive, has been much publicized. In March 2009, the search-engine giant paired with Sony to announce that its free public-domain eBooks would be available for the Sony Reader. It marked the first time that Google’s scanned books were available for an eReader in an ePub format.
By doing so, Sony increased the library of books available on its eReader to 600,000, eclipsing the 245,000 volumes on offer through Amazon’s much-publicized Kindle library.
In May 2008, despite having digitized 750,000 books and indexed 80 million journal articles, Microsoft shut down its Live Search Books and Live Search Academic projects due to construction and maintenance costs, leaving Google to run relatively unopposed in the online digital library space.