The Justice Department is examining antitrust issues regarding a proposed settlement of Google Book Search lawsuits with the search giant, according to reports in the Wall Street Journal and New York Times on Tuesday, citing unnamed sources.
It's unclear what might come of the reported talks, but the Justice Department is not to be treated lightly. The department leads enforcement of antitrust law, and Google backed down from its threatened antitrust lawsuit against it in 2008 regarding a search-ad partnership with Yahoo.
The proposed settlement with the Authors Guild and the Association of American Publishers, announced in October, would among other things give Google the right to show content from books online that are still in copyright but that are no longer in print. In addition, those copyright holders could be paid for online sales of their books.
Authors and publishers may opt out of the proposed settlement, but if they do nothing, they're considered part of it. That includes authors who can't be located.
Google has book-search agreements in place with numerous publishers, but the company hopes that the settlement will permit it to bring many more books to into its service. But in a tactical victory on Tuesday for settlement opponents, a judge gave authors four more months to decide whether to participate.
Antitrust issues have arisen in the Book Search case. One notable voice is Harvard University's head librarian, Robert Darnton, who in a February article in the New York Review of Books worried about the control Google would get through the settlement.
"The class-action character of the settlement makes Google invulnerable to competition," he said. "Most book authors and publishers who own U.S. copyrights are automatically covered by the settlement. They can opt out of it; but whatever they do, no new digitizing enterprise can get off the ground without winning their assent one by one, a practical impossibility, or without becoming mired down in another class action suit. If approved by the court--a process that could take as much as two years--the settlement will give Google control over the digitizing of virtually all books covered by copyright in the United States."
However, Paul Courant, though, dean of libraries at the University of Michigan--a Google Book Search Partner and fan of the proposed settlement--objected to Darnton's view. "His view of the world that will likely emerge as a result of Google's scanning of copyrighted works is a dystopian fantasy," Courant said.
Google and the Justice Department didn't immediately comment on the report.