DoJ Intervenes Against Google Book Search

The U.S. Department of Justice (DoJ) tonight has informed the federal judge overseeing a proposed class-action settlement of the Google Book Search case that it officially opposes the settlement, as currently structured, but that since the parties are continuing to negotiate, it reserves the right to revise its legal opinion about the case in the future.

An initial reading of the 32-page filing leads to the impression that the Obama administration may be more ambivalent about opposing the proposed settlement than these bottom-line conclusions might suggest.

This is because the department's document strikes its most articulate and unambiguous tone when it clearly recognizes the potential public good that Google has already accomplished to date:

"The proposed settlement has the potential to breathe life into millions of works that are now effectively off limits to the public. By allowing users to search the text of millions of books at no cost, the proposed settlement would open the door to new research opportunities.

"Users with print disabilities would also benefit from the accessibility elements of the proposed settlement, and, if the proposed settlement were approved, full text access to tens of millions of books would be provided through institutional subscriptions.

"Finally, the creation of an independent, transparently-operated Book Rights Registry, that would serve to clarify the copyright status and copyright ownership of out-of-print works, would be a welcome development."

That said, in the rest of its filing, the department endorses the more conservative anti-trust and copyright-protection arguments that are the core of the opposition to the proposed settlement, so oppositional parties have to feel buoyed by this development tonight.

It appears that, on balance, fear of Google's bold move to scanning millions of books first and ask about the legalities later are carrying the day with the Obama administration, at least for now.

You can read the entire filing, which contains much more detail, here. And please also read my Bnet colleague Erik Sherman's take on the DoJ intervention.