Copyrights and wrongs: Google vs. the publishers

Trends

October 30, 2005|By ALEC MACGILLIS | ALEC MACGILLIS,SUN REPORTER

Barring a last-minute development, the coming week will see the resumption of a technological revolution that many authors and publishers are arguing is the biggest threat to their industry since Beaver Cleaver supplanted the Hardy Boys: Google's project to digitize the contents of five major libraries and make it possible to search for the books online.

Google announced last year that it was partnering with five libraries - the University of Michigan, Harvard, Stanford, the New York Public and Oxford University - to scan and index their holdings. Internet users could then enter certain words or phrases in Google's search engine and be pointed to books containing them.

The Web site would present users with the full digitized texts of those books that are in the public domain, or which copyright holders had given Google permission to display. For other copyrighted books, users would be shown only two- or three-sentence snippets containing the term that was searched, and then be pointed to libraries where they could find an actual copy of the book.

The project's proponents say it will become a tremendous resource for researchers and casual browsers around the world, a kind of virtual card catalog that will help link readers to books they might otherwise never have been aware of and save thousands of lesser-known titles from permanent obscurity.

But others view the project much more darkly - as another sign that the billionaires at Google, under the guise of geeky altruism, are taking over the planet, or at the very least reaping an undue share of its Internet bounties. In recent months, the Authors Guild and the Association of American Publishers have filed suit against Google, claiming that the project represents blatant copyright infringement. Even if Google is displaying only snippets - which the company says is covered under "fair use" provisions - it is still scanning into its search engine the entire texts of books that it hasn't obtained permission to copy.

This stands in contrast, the publishers group says, to an earlier project launched by Google under which publishers have explicitly agreed to let Google scan certain titles. Under that program, the company has agreed to share with publishers the proceeds it gets from online booksellers who advertise the books on the site.

The publishers and authors groups say the library project, on the other hand, will bring Google millions more in revenue - by bringing more traffic to its search engine and thus earning more from its online advertisements - without the company having to share any of the profits with the writers and publishers who produced the text. They say they are not opposed to a huge book search engine - they just feel they deserve a big piece of the pie.

"Google knows its business; it expects to profit from this project. Certainly some of those profits should go to the authors who created the books," wrote Authors Guild President Nick Taylor in a recent letter to The New York Times. "By digitizing mountains of copyrighted books without permission, Google is exercising a renegade notion of eminent domain: Google decides what's good for us and seizes private property to get it done."

Google agreed earlier this year to suspend temporarily its scanning of copyrighted books while attempting to find a compromise with the publishers. It offered that publishers could opt out and decline to have certain books scanned; publishers dismissed this, saying it would still set a precedent for letting anyone digitize books online. The publishers proposed the reverse: that Google be required to go to publishers or authors to get permission for most copyrighted books scanned.

Google rejected this as unworkable, and, as negotiations stalled, it sent a letter to publishers this month that it intends to resume scanning Tuesday, said Allan R. Adler, the publisher group's vice president for legal affairs.

A cynical observer, of course, might be tempted to remark on the publishers' and authors' protests: Welcome to the 21st century, friends. After all, they are only the latest in the line of "content producers" to see the fruits of their labors being made available online without receiving adequate compensation.

Musicians have seen their sales plummet as they've had to contend with online file sharing of their work, while news organizations struggle with shrinking audiences as consumers go online for news at sites such as Google News. (In a precursor to the library lawsuits, the wire service Agence France-Presse sued over the use of AFP headlines on Google News, forcing Google to stop using AFP material in March.)

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