- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 18, 2005

Google has plans to put books that dwell in the relative obscurity of public and university libraries into the highly trafficked realm of the World Wide Web. The clear value of such an undertaking would not excuse Google, though, from any infringement of copyrights. Google and the publishers currently trying to block the project need to alter their positions only a few degrees to reach a compromise. At stake is the potential revitalization of debate and research on broad range of topics.

Google’s project would allow its users to type key words into its search engine and peruse a list of books that cover the topic. When a user clicks on the link to a book, he will see short excerpts from the work with the key word highlighted — a kind of digitized card catalogue only better, since the entire contents of a book can be searched. Users can then click on a link at the bottom of the page to purchase the book or look for it in a library.

With such an approach, there is little risk that print could become “Napsterized” the way popular music has, due to rampant file swapping on the Internet. The project, called “Google Print for Libraries,” facilitates the sale of hard-copy books only — not books to be read on or printed from a computer.

Google already has permission from the libraries of the University of Michigan, Harvard, Stanford, the New York Public Library, and Oxford University to scan their books. Publishers, though, have some concerns related to intellectual property rights. Google has said that until November, it will scan only books that are in the public domain. It will begin scanning copyrighted works afterwards, but has said the presses can give it lists of the books they do not want scanned.

In order to carry out its project, Google must scan books in their entirety and store the scanned copies in their databases. The publishers maintain that that practice would put Google in possession of the books for free, and that the database could be vulnerable to theft. The publishers want to be paid royalties on the books that Google scans.

That seems an overreaction by the publishers, since Google is providing users only with short excerpts of the books. While Google would benefit in terms of advertising dollars from the traffic generated by searches for books, it is footing the bill for the book-scanning itself and publishers get the proceeds of book purchases that would not be made without the Google platform. Google says that its databases are very secure, and it seems highly unlikely that hordes of tech-savvy youths would be trying to hack their way into a database of academic works, the way they might with, say, hip-hop music.

Still, Google should scan the books only if it is given permission by the owners of the content. The company has been imperious in declaring that it can scan any book in the libraries unless it is asked not to by the publishers. Rather, the onus is on Google to get permission before scanning, not on the publishers to opt out. If Google were to challenge the presses on that point, it would probably lose.

Google is embarking on a project that could revolutionize the way information in books is accessed. It seems reasonable to conclude that it could be a boom to publishers. If both sides do not show the necessary flexibility, though, the project could be delayed by court challenges, at the expense of Google, publishers and surfers.

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