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US Justice Department investigating controversial Google book project

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John MacDougall/AFP/Newscom

(Read caption) People sit under a Google logo at the Google stand of the Frankfurt Book Fair on October 15, 2008. The Wall Street Journal is reporting that the US Justice Department's antitrust division is seeking information on a deal reached with between two publishers and Google.

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Last October, Google and a coalition of book publishers and authors reached a $125 million deal that gave Google exclusive rights to scan millions of books from around the world. These scans, according to the provisions of the settlement, could then be made available through Google's search tool.

Google also won the right to include in its databases the text of so-called "orphaned" books, whose authors can not be found.

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But last night, The Wall Street Journal reported that the Justice Department had sent civil investigative demands – formal legal requests similar to subpoenas – to Google, a handful of publishers, the Association of American Publishers, and the Authors Guild. Today, that request was confirmed by David Drummond, Google Chief Legal Officer, according to Reuters. The requests are being widely viewed as a ratcheting up of a potential anti-trust investigation.

Google first began scanning books in 2004, but by 2005, authors and publishers had sued, alleging that the company was running roughshod over copyright laws. The October settlement, which has not yet been formally approved in court, includes a registry where the authors and writers of scanning books can receive small royalties. As of now, only small snippets of text are available to users of Google Book Search.

Writing today on the Wall Street Journal's Law Blog, Ashby Jones called the demands "the strongest sign yet that the Justice Department may seek to block or force a renegotiation of the settlement."

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