The U.S. Department of Justice confirmed on Thursday that it is investigating a settlement involving Google Book Search for possible antitrust violations, following months of speculation that the agency had its eye on the service.
In a filing to the judge overseeing the settlement of a lawsuit filed by The Authors Guild against Google, the DOJ informed the court that it has opened an investigation into the proposed settlement after reviewing public comments of concern. Those comments suggest that the agreement might violate the Sherman Act, a U.S. antitrust law, the DOJ said.
"The United States has reached no conclusions as to the merit of those concerns or more broadly what impact this settlement may have on competition. However, we have determined that the issues raised by the proposed settlement warrant further inquiry," the letter reads.
It also says the DOJ has already demanded access to documents and other information from parties in the litigation and expects to have ongoing discussions with them as well.
The court has a hearing scheduled for Oct. 7, during which it will discuss the proposed settlement. Judge Denny Chin, who is overseeing the case, invited the DOJ to submit its opinions in writing in advance and also appear at the hearing.
Authors and publishers initially filed the suit against Google, charging the search giant with copyright infringement for scanning books without always getting the approval of authors and publishers. Google allowed authors to opt out of the program.
As part of the proposed settlement, Google would pay US$125 million toward funding a Book Rights Registry that would locate and register copyright owners. The money would also help settle existing claims by authors and publishers. In exchange, Google would be able to display larger chunks of in-copyright books, rather than just snippets.
Also, Google would let people buy online access to the books, and universities and other institutions would be able to buy subscriptions to the books.
The proposed settlement has had its critics. Pamela Samuelson, a professor at the University of California at Berkeley, argues that the proposed settlement is in essence a way to monetize so-called orphan works, and that it is questionable whether the deal represents the best interests of the authors of such works. Orphan works are those for which no one claims ownership, because either the author is dead or the publishing house no longer exists.
Consumer Watchdog, a nonprofit group, argues that the proposal gives Google special protections against lawsuits over the orphan works. Those special protections would discourage potential Google competitors from entering the digital book business unless they could negotiate a similar protection, the group argues. Consumer Watchdog has urged the DOJ to examine the settlement.