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Google pushes back in tussle over book search settlement

Juan Carlos Perez | April 30, 2009
Sources confirm the DOJ is asking questions about Google's settlement agreement with authors and publishers

MIAMI, 29 APRIL 2009 - Google is standing behind its proposed settlement with U.S. authors and publishers over its book search engine.

Antitrust concerns over the proposed agreement have prompted critics to object to it and the U.S. government to seek more information about it.

"The agreement was structured in a way specifically to encourage competition. It's non-exclusive," said Google spokesman Gabriel Stricker on Wednesday.

"The charter of the Book Rights Registry quite explicitly states it will be able to work with other third parties to represent rightsholders who come forward," Stricker said, referring to the independent, nonprofit entity that would distribute payments to copyright holders earned through online access to their works.

In addition, Adam Smith, Google's Book Search Director of Product Management, argued in a blog posting on Wednesday that the proposed settlement will greatly benefit readers by making books, especially hard-to-find, out-of-print ones, more widely and easily available.

But critics have raised various concerns over the settlement between Google and the plaintiffs -- the Authors Guild and the Association of American Publishers (AAP).

Now, the U.S. Department of Justice is getting involved.

An industry source close to the matter confirmed as accurate reports on Tuesday in The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal that the DOJ is seeking information about the proposed settlement.

This person, who asked IDG News Service for anonymity, said that the DOJ in recent weeks approached Google's lawyers and held brief conversations with them.

The DOJ told Google lawyers that it was prompted by concerns raised by critics of the proposed settlement, particularly over the issue of orphan works, which are those for which no one claims ownership, either because the author has died or the publishing house disappeared.

Earlier this month, Consumer Watchdog called on the DOJ to intervene, arguing that the proposed settlement gives Google special protections against lawsuits over orphan works.

"The danger of using such works is that a rights holder will emerge after the book has been exploited and demand substantial infringement penalties. The proposed settlement protects Google from such potentially damaging exposure, but provides no protection for others. This effectively is a barrier for competitors to enter the digital book business," Consumer Watchdog said in a statement.

Google and the DOJ plan to sit down for more talks, the source said, adding that the DOJ is in very early stages of information gathering and hasn't told Google it is launching a formal inquiry. A DOJ spokeswoman declined to comment.

Allan Adler, the AAP's vice president for legal and government affairs, confirmed that the DOJ contacted the AAP this week, but that they haven't met yet.

That the DOJ is interested in understanding a settlement agreement as complex as this one isn't at all surprising, he said. "We anticipated a call from them," Adler told IDG News Service.


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