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Justice Dept Condemns Revised Google Book Deal

February 5, 2010

The Justice Department criticized on Thursday a revised legal agreement that would allow Google Inc. to build a vast digital library, saying the deal failed to address antitrust and copyright concerns.

While acknowledging that progress had been made, lawyers with the department told the U.S. District Court in New York that “issues remain.”

Despite good faith efforts by all involved, the revised agreement “suffers from the same core problem as the original agreement,” the department said in a statement of interest filed with the court.

“The amended settlement agreement still confers significant and possibly anti-competitive advantages on Google as a single entity,” the DOJ said about the settlement between Google, The Authors Guild and other involved parties. 

“Thereby enabling the company to be the only competitor in the digital marketplace with the rights to distribute and otherwise exploit a vast array of works in multiple formats,” it continued,” the DOJ said in a release authored by assistant U.S, attorney John Clopper.

Among the department’s concerns is the possibility that Google could gain exclusive control over so-called “orphan” books, which are titles that are not protected by copyright or in which ownership cannot be determined.

“The court should carefully examine whether there exists a means for rival distributors to access orphan and rights-uncertain works,” read the DOJ statement.

Judge Denny Chin is set to hold a hearing on February 18 on Google’s digital book project.

For its part, Google said the amended settlement would allow new distribution channels for the books.

“If approved by the court, the settlement will significantly expand online access to works through Google Books, while giving authors and publishers new ways to distribute their works,” the Internet search giant said late Thursday.

“We look forward to Judge Chin’s review of the statement of interest from the Department and the comments from the many supporters who have filed submissions with the court in the last months.”

Google emphasized that the DOJ filing acknowledged progress in the revised deal, and “reinforces the value the agreement can provide in unlocking access to millions of books in the US.”

Other objections to the agreement were filed last month by Amazon, Consumer Watchdog, several French publishers, author Ursula K. Le Guin, the Open Book Alliance (OBA) and others.

“The Department of Justice has made it crystal clear that the proposal before the court is overreaching and cannot be approved, said the OBA in a release.

“We are particularly heartened that the government identified the anti-competitive consequences this proposal would have on digital book sales and the search market.”

Online retailer Amazon, which makes the Kindle e-reader and operates its own digital bookstore, urged the judge to reject the amended agreement, saying it violates anti-trust and copyright law.

In 2008, Google reached a settlement with the Authors Guild and the Association of American Publishers to a copyright infringement suit they had filed against the company in 2005.

Under the terms of that settlement, Mountain View, Calif.-based Google agreed to pay $125 million to settle outstanding claims and create an independent “Book Rights Registry” that would provide sales-based compensation to authors and publishers who agree to digitize their books with Google.

Google and the authors and publishers drafted the revised agreement now before the court after objections from France, Germany, the U.S. Department of Justice and others.

The modified deal constrains the definition of books covered under the settlement to those registered with the U.S. Copyright Office by January 2009, or those published in the U.S., Britain, Australia or Canada.

“The changes do not fully resolve the United States’ concerns,” the Justice Department said.

David Balto, senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, said the DOJ was incorrect in assuming the settlement gives Google a competitive advantage.

“The DOJ’s view is clouded by taking a microscopic and static view of an incredibly dynamic marketplace,” the former anti-trust attorney told the AFP news agency.

“Ultimately the court will get this one right and approve the settlement because, as the DOJ acknowledges, it will bring profound benefits to millions of consumers.”

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