Book deal puts Google in DOJ crosshairs

Not so fast, Google. BusinessWeek reports that the Justice Department has launched an informal inquiry into Google's recent deal with authors and book publishers that would let Google scan books and open them up to search via Google Book Search. It seems the DOJ is worried the new service could be anticompetitive and preclude competitors from providing similar offerings.

In the settlement, Google agreed to pay $125 million to create a Book Rights Registry to compensate authors and publishers in exchange for the right to scan and display the books online, while profiting from subscriptions to libraries and other institutions, and charging for access to individual books. While the Authors Guild and the Association of American Publishers agreed to the deal, others, including New York Federal District Court Judge Denny Chin, think the whole thing has moved too fast and needs to be dissected a bit more. Chin recently imposed a four-month delay on the May 5 deadline for authors to opt out of the system. And now the DOJ is investigating.

BusinessWeek quotes several sources confirming the DOJ probe into the deal who say the main issue is around so-called orphan works, or books that are out of print and are no longer under copyright. So far, the DOJ has talked with deal critics, like the Internet Archive, which offers a competing digitizing service and complains that the new book registry would give Google sole authority to profit from scanning orphan works.

Still, the DOJ hasn't formally announced an investigation, and so far, Google hasn't been contacted--which would be the first step in any event. It will be interesting to see what happens. If the DOJ nears a full-blown investigation, would Google just back off the Book Search initiative altogether--as it did with the Yahoo deal last year? Google probably wants to avoid a DOJ-inspired legal quagmire at any cost, but it's already sunk a great deal of time, technology and money (including legal costs surrounding the settlement) into Book Search. Maybe this is one it should try and fight.

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