Search Me?

By Bob Thompson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 13, 2006

STANFORD, Calif. If it is really true that Google is going to digitize the roughly 9 million books in the libraries of Stanford University, then you can be sure that the folks who brought you the world's most ambitious search engine will come, in due time, for call number E169 D3.

Google workers will pull Lillian Dean's 1950 travelogue "This Is Our Land" -- the story of one family's "pleasant and soul-satisfying auto journey across our continent" -- from a shelf in the second-floor stacks of the Cecil H. Green Library. They will place the slim blue volume on a book cart, wheel it into a Google truck backed up to the library's loading dock and whisk it a few miles southeast to the Googleplex, the $100 billion-plus company's sprawling, campuslike headquarters in Mountain View. There, at an undisclosed location, it will be scanned and added to the ever-expanding universe of digitally searchable knowledge.

Why undisclosed?

Because for one thing, in their race to assemble the greatest digital library the world has ever seen, Google's engineers have developed sophisticated technology they'd prefer their competitors not see.

And for another, perhaps -- though Google executives don't say so directly -- the library scanning program already has generated a little too much heat.

Last fall, the Authors Guild and a group of major publishing houses filed separate suits in U.S. District Court in Manhattan, charging Google with copyright infringement on a massive scale. Google argues that under the "fair use" provisions of copyright law, it has a perfect right to let its users search the text of copyrighted works -- as long as, once the search is complete, it only shows them what it calls "snippets" of those works. Nonsense, say the authors and publishers: In order to find and display those snippets, Google must first copy whole books without permission.

Books like E169 D3 -- which finds itself smack at the heart of this contested legal territory.

"Great example," says Andrew Herkovic, the communications and development director for Stanford's libraries, as he pauses to consider "This Is Our Land" during a Green Library tour.

There's a 10-1 chance, Herkovic estimates, that its copyright expired without being renewed, which would put it safely in the public domain.

But "if you were the corporate counsel for Stanford, Google or anybody else, is 10 to 1 good enough?"

California Dreamin'

To travel to Silicon Valley and consider the fate of E169 D3 -- along with the tens of millions of other volumes Google hopes to scan, from Stanford and a number of other major libraries -- is to open a window on the future of books in the digital age.

It's also to be swept up in the saga of Google itself: the seat-of-the-pants enterprise that computer science whizzes Sergey Brin and Larry Page moved out of their cramped quarters at Stanford in 1998 -- just eight years ago! -- and into Susan Wojcicki's garage.

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