Google book scan plan tests copyright laws

David Canton - For the London Free Press - October 22, 2005 Read this on Canoe

Google is in the process of scanning 20 million books into digital format and intends to make their text fully searchable on the Internet.

This ambitious plan is putting copyright laws to a digital-era test and is just the latest example where creative applications of technology challenge traditional thinking and the application of laws.

Google is scanning millions of books into its system to allow users to search them using keywords, much like we now do with items on the Internet.

Google says while entire books will be scanned, users will be able to see only snippets of text where the search terms appear. It will also provide basic bibliographic information and links to online booksellers and libraries.

Google claims its project is consistent with U.S. copyright laws, but some authors and publishers differ.

The Authors Guild, an organization of more than 8,000 authors, has accused Google of "massive copyright infringement," saying Google can't do this without permission.

The lawsuit asks the court to block Google from copying the books so the authors won't suffer irreparable harm by being deprived the right to control reproduction of their works.

The Association of American Publishers launched a similar suit just a few days ago.

Google calls the legal action "short-sighted" and says the project is an "historic effort to make millions of books easier for people to find and buy."

In an attempt to mollify concerns, Google announced publishers can tell them which books not to scan at all. It halted the scanning of copyright works in August and said it would resume in November, to give publishers time to compile their lists of books not to scan.

Some publishers argue this approach is backward -- that the burden of record-keeping should be on Google, not them. In their opinion, publishers should have to opt in to the Google Print project, as opposed to the optional opt-out system Google has implemented.

The Internet is increasingly becoming the research tool of choice for many people. But many of the best sources of information are only available in print. This leaves these valuable sources of information collecting dust in libraries, often out of print, while individuals searching for information settle for whatever sources they can find online.

Google Print is aimed at enabling people to search for sources online, giving them a sample of the contents of a given source and the bibliographic information needed to lawfully obtain a hard copy.

It is difficult to see how allowing users to view small snippets of books will detract from book sales. There is some suggestion the program has boosted sales of some obscure book titles.

"For a typical author, obscurity is a far greater threat than copyright infringement, or even outright piracy," said Tim O'Reilly, chief executive of O'Reilly Media and an adviser to Google's project. "Google is offering publishers an amazing opportunity for people to discover their content."

Personally, I welcome the ability for people to find, search and see snippets of books. The possibility of an entire book being available online to read without compensation is definitely a concern, but Google Print has stated it has no intention of doing that.

This is from my perspective as author of a book called Legal Landmines in eCommerce -- published by McGraw-Hill, one of the publishers in the suit against Google.