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European Union to scrutinize Google Books settlement; Congress may hold hearing

July 20, 2009 |  4:30 pm
Magnifying glass
Google Books settlement attracts scrutiny of regulators. Credit: somegeekintn via Flickr.

The European Union said today that it would scrutinize Google's settlement with authors and publishers and hold a hearing Sept. 7 to determine whether there would be any adverse impact on the European book market.

"What’s currently planned is a fact-finding exercise by the [European] Commission -- not an investigation -- and we're looking forward to taking part," said Jennie Johnson, a Google spokeswoman.

Under scrutiny will be Google's agreement, reached last year with the Authors Guild and the American Association of Publishers, to make out-of-print books searchable online. Among other things, the agreement also would create a digital library of books to which libraries and research institutions can have full access for a recurring fee.

"It’s important to discuss how we can use the Internet to bring back to life millions of books around the world that will otherwise be lost," Johnson said. "This is at the heart of what we have accomplished in our agreement with authors and publishers. It's also why we are working in partnership with libraries around the world to digitize their books so they can live forever online."

The settlement has recently become a magnet for controversy and scrutiny. Earlier this month, the U.S. Justice Department, working with several state attorneys general, launched a formal investigation into the potential antitrust implications of the settlement. Consumer groups, libraries and nonprofit organizations such as the Internet Archive have also voiced concerns that the settlement would give Google too much influence over the burgeoning digital books market.

Google yesterday confirmed that Congress has also expressed an interest that could result in hearings in Washington, D.C.

"We've been in touch with members of Congress and understand that there's interest in exploring the settlement," Johnson said.

Though the agreement is confined to the U.S. market, it does have the potential to affect foreign authors whose out-of-print works would be included in the settlement if they were published here. Those authors have until Sept. 4 to remove their works from Google's database of scanned books. They can also opt to keep their works in the Google Books project and receive royalties from the proceeds of selling access to the database.

"Because this agreement is the result of a U.S. lawsuit, it only affects Google Books users in the U.S.," Johnson said. "In other words, people [outside of the U.S.] will be able to search for books and may see snippets of in-copyright books, but they won't be able to purchase access to books online, and the subscription won't be offered to institutions outside the United States."

-- Alex Pham

Follow my random thoughts on games, gear and technology on Twitter @AlexPham.

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