Justice Department Wants Changes in Google Books Settlement

September 20, 2009

The U.S. Department of Justice has weighed in on the proposed Google Book Search settlement with authors and publishers, advising the federal court overseeing the case that the deal in its current form "does not meet the legal standards this court must apply." The department made that assessment in a "statement of interest" issued late Friday.

It noted that the proposed settlement "raises significant legal concerns" about whether it is "consistent with copyright law and antitrust law."

The department also raised the question of whether the societal stakes were too high to be decided by a private court action. "A global disposition of the rights to millions of copyrighted works is typically the kind of policy change implemented through legislation, not through a private judicial settlement," it said in the statement.

The Justice Department's recommendation does not mean the deal is dead. The department held out hope that the settlement could be altered enough to meet current legal standards, and it encouraged the parties to keep negotiating. It also went out of its way to talk about the greater good at stake.

"The proposed settlement has the potential to breathe life into millions of works that are now effectively off limits to the public," the department said. The Book Search project "would open the door to new research opportunities" and expand access to vast amounts of material. A "book-rights registry" that would be created by the settlement would be "a welcome development," the agency said, because it "would serve to clarify the copyright status and copyright ownership of out-of-print works."

In a short written statement, Google and the other parties to the lawsuit, the Authors Guild and the Association of American Publishers, struck an upbeat note. "The Department of Justice's filing recognizes the value the settlement can provide by unlocking access to millions of books in the United States," they said. "We are considering the points raised by the department and look forward to addressing them as the court proceedings continue."