Google can search an astonishing 8 billion Web pages. That's a drop in the bucket compared with the knowledge stored in the world's libraries. It's little wonder, then, that many scholars and readers were thrilled when Google Inc. (GOOG ) announced in December that it planned to scan the complete texts of millions of books from major libraries around the globe and make them searchable online.
Google's library project would make digital versions of whatever libraries hand over -- including copyrighted books -- regardless of whether authors or publishers agree. Already, five major libraries -- Harvard, Stanford, Oxford, Michigan, and the New York Public Library -- are sending the first of millions of books, which Google is digitizing. The goal is to gather as much of the world's knowledge as possible and make it accessible on Google. For public domain books, users will be able to see full text. For copyrighted books, viewing will be "only a few sentences," says Google. When Google gets up to speed, its scanning machines will be able to process 5,000 books a day.
It's a marvel of technology, no doubt. But Google's big plan has set off a firestorm among authors and their publishers. They worry that giving Google carte blanche access to their copyrighted material could pose serious financial and piracy risks for them. Problem No. 1 is that Google's plan is a clear violation of copyright laws, according to publishers and many lawyers. Copyright laws generally forbid duplicating or distributing material without explicit permission from the copyright holder. That could be either the publisher or the author, depending on the details of each original book contract. In a May 20 letter, the Association of American University Presses President Peter Gilver blasted Google's so-called Print for Libraries program, saying that it "appears to involve systematic infringement of copyright on a massive scale."
Many lawyers agree. Says Laura N. Gasaway, a University of North Carolina law professor: "If it's not a right specifically transferred by the author, then it isn't a valid copy." Others are more blunt. Says Joni Evans, a literary agent at William Morris Agency Inc.: "It makes a fool of our copyright laws." Google would not comment for this story, but in a written statement said that it respects the rights of copyright holders; moreover, it adds, publishers can prevent scanned books from being viewed if they wish. Separately, some legal experts, such as Stanford law professor Lawrence Lessig, say there is some flexibility in the "fair use" exemption in copyright law, which makes allowances for limited reproduction for purposes such as criticism, scholarship, or research.
No matter how the issue is resolved, the risk is clear: By digitizing libraries on servers, Google could "Napsterize" the written word, says Nigel Newton, CEO of Bloomsbury Publishing PLC, which publishes Harry Potter Books. If servers full of books were hacked, copyrighted material would be freely available all over the web.
Publishers are also troubled by the potential financial hit. They worry that the worth of their backlist -- books more than two years old, upon whose sales both the academic publishers and trade houses depend rely -- could be eroded or even destroyed if Google's plans go awry. Legendary Random House co-founder Bennett Cerf once noted that his backlist was like "picking up gold from the sidewalk."
Another reason for the industry's vehemence is the way Google's digital library was announced. Just two months before, many major publishers had worked out their own agreements with the search giant to display selected titles, in a project called Print for Publishers. Similar services, like Amazon's "Search Inside the Book," have increased online sales. And many publishers remain excited about the prospects of Google's program doing the same. "We're very careful about protecting our content," says Kate Tentler, vice-president and publisher at Simon & Schuster Online. "But we do think this could be a great additional marketing and sales tool." But now the library program has caught them off guard.
Authors are scratching their heads, too. They like the exposure their books get on Amazon, but also worry about the consequences of having their work readily available online. "It seems completely clear to me that both the libraries and Google are violating the law," says James Gleick, a former editor at The New York Times and author of Isaac Newton. That's a risk writers and publishers will increasingly face.
By Burt Helm and Hardy Green in New York