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Google Books Deal Faces Challenge by Tech Giants

Google Books' deal to scan an archive of published books has been controversial right from the start, and now faces its biggest challenge yet: From a powerful coalition that includes Microsoft, Yahoo and Amazon. Is it all about search engines?

Google BooksGoogle's deal, if you remember, sewed up the rights to a gargantuan array of existing works published in libraries. It was a one-size-fits-all agreement with the Author's Guild and Association of American Publishers—in return for sharing some of the resulting ad revenue, Google gets to use the texts in its online searchable digital books archive. The main argument against it is that it's created an unfair advantage for Google, by offering an air of copyright immunity around Google that competitor digital publishers would find hard to counteract.

The Justice Department and state attorneys general, along with a large number of publishers, European officials and authors are uncomfortable with the deal, and there's some legal investigation underway already. But it's nothing to the challenge that's about to hit. Led by big-shot Silicon Valley lawyer Gary Reback (who prosecuted Microsoft in an antitrust case, previously) the coalition challenging Google now numbers Microsoft, Yahoo and Amazon among its members. There will be no centrally-filed objection to Google's settlement, but the group's pretty powerful and will be pushing Google, lots of political buttons and the Justice Department to try to amend the situation.

Amazon is an obvious spot in this crowd—it's most definitely got interests in the digital publishing field, with its successful Kindle device and electronic book archive already transforming the nascent e-book scene. Google's digital archive doesn't necessarily compete directly against Amazon's newly-published e-books, but it undoubtedly poses a big threat to long term business expansion. And it seems to have occurred via the copyright backdoor, whereas Amazon's done things a more squeaky-clean legal licensing way. I can understand why Amazon's piqued.

But Microsoft and Yahoo are unexpected allies with Amazon in this group—what exactly is their interest in digital publishing? Neither has a concrete presence in this marketplace, and they don't have e-reader devices on sale like Amazon does. Is it simply a question of an early play to stop Google dominating a scene Microsoft and Yahoo plan on entering in the future? Yes, it's almost certainly something like that, since both Microsoft and Yahoo already have a presence in a lots of different high-tech industries. The recent search-engine tie-up between the two may also be playing into this action.

And that's possibly the real reason behind Microsoft and Yahoo's decision to stand up against Google—search engine data. As part of its online digital books service, Google will be doing its usual user-profiling tricks, and gaining insight on the reading habits of users it can later exploit to make money. Microsoft and Yahoo are very likely to be concerned that Google's getting all this juicy data via unfair means, which could give it a competitive edge.

[via Wall Street Journal]