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Google's Goal: A Worldwide Web of Books

Google executive Vinton Cerf has a collection of 10,000 books. He says Google's book-search plan will help people easily search digitized books.
Google executive Vinton Cerf has a collection of 10,000 books. He says Google's book-search plan will help people easily search digitized books. (By Marvin Joseph -- The Washington Post)

Google contends the project falls within the "fair use" exemption to copyright law, because it is not providing full access to copyrighted books, merely letting people search inside and see excerpts. Google's book search service, still in trial mode, allows people to only read the full text of books in the public domain and shows sample pages from books for which publishers have granted Google sampling rights.

But for most books it is scanning, Google argues the copyright status is unclear and therefore shows more limited excerpts. Google refers to them as "snippets," raggedy images of a few lines of text from inside, with information about who published each book and when.

But at least five publishing houses disagree that the "snippets" constitute fair use. In a lawsuit filed in October, McGraw-Hill, Simon & Schuster and three other publishers charged that Google is violating copyright law because, in order to prepare the snippets, it is making and storing on computers unauthorized full copies of their books. And while Google tells the public its goal is simply to make books searchable, the suit alleges that Google's aim is to get more visitors so it can sell more ads.

"The question you have to ask is whether book search is an asset to Google," said Allan Adler, vice president for legal and government affairs for the Association of American Publishers. "Of course it is. It's one way it can differentiate itself from the competition."

Cerf thinks publishers fail to appreciate that Google probably will help them sell more books by making them searchable. Helping people locate a book and know what's in it, he said, are key steps toward getting them to buy it. And for many books are available for sale, Google provides links to Amazon.com and other online sellers. Google does not sell books.

For now, Google is showing no ads alongside search results involving books from libraries, only books provided by publishers. In those cases, publishers are receiving a share of the ad revenue.

Google also recently announced it will soon allow publishers and copyright holders to sell full electronic access to books through Google book search, either by letting people read the text online or downloading copies. Google will take a 30 percent commission on any fees publishers collect.

What Google has not announced, but is likely to one day, are ways it might help publishers and authors enhance pages from printed books once they are online.

Cerf refers to this as "books that talk to each other," an idea to make them more like the rest of the Web where pages are cross-linked and visitors can annotate and tag text as is done with Web logs.

"Because the Internet is a computing environment, a software environment, it's possible to create a much richer kind of information than what we are typically accustomed to in books," Cerf said. Digitized books, he said, can be searched and updated easily, linked to related material, and enhanced with audio and video. But they can also be changed, which means that the book you read a year ago may look different the next time you consult it.

As his attention turned back to his personal book collection, his eyes lit up as he imagined searching its contents from a BlackBerry. Listening to him, I couldn't help thinking how inevitable it is that library books will move online and come alive with hyperlinks and annotations, the way the Web already is.

And then everyone, not just the Vinton Cerfs of the world, will have access to vast personal libraries from the comforts of home.

Leslie Walker welcomes e-mail atleslie@lesliewalker.com.

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