The Department of Justice just showed part of its hand in the investigation of Google’s class action settlement with book publishers and authors, and the Googlers in Mountain View should be getting concerned.

In a letter to the judge who must decide whether to certify the landmark settlement, the trust-busters confirmed for the first time that they were taking a look at the deal – in fact, that they’ve issued civil investigative demands to get more information, so it’s more than a casual glance – though of course they have “reached no conclusions” yet.

The judge duly wrote back and invited the DoJ to stop by and present its case when he holds a hearing on the matter, scheduled for October 7th.

This looks ominous. It was never clear how this anti-trust investigation would relate to the court’s review, which is based on copyright issues. But by laying its cards on the table so far in advance, the DoJ seems to be sending a strong signal that it plans to weigh in. Such an early letter also suggests there is little chance this one will blow over after an initial review, and that the DoJ believes it will still want a seat at the table come October.

Google has not shifted its position: that the book agreement would be a boon to internet users by making millions of books available online for the first time (true), and that the agreement does not give it any exclusivity because any other internet company is free to strike a similar deal.

Of course, just because other companies can build book search services of their own doesn’t mean they will. Even the deep-pocketed Microsoft abandoned its efforts to digitise millions of tomes. And even if others did attempt it, it’s by no means certain that they’d get the same rights to “orphan works” that this agreement gives Google.

These, no doubt, are just some of the issues that DoJ staffers plan to spend their time pondering this summer.

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