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Google's libraries project facing writers' block

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You can't build the biggest electronic reference desk on planet Earth without suffering a few virtual paper cuts, as Google is learning with its ambitious program to digitize the contents of several major university libraries.

The benefit to society in having a free, fully searchable collection of millions of books and journals is huge -- so huge that we should all root for Google to prevail.

But the Mountain View search giant also needs to work harder at finding common ground with authors and book publishers who aren't happy about being Googled. It's the right thing to do. What's more, it might not be possible to complete the program with authors and publishers standing in the way.

The dispute came to a head on Sept. 20 when the Author's Guild, a group representing writers, filed a class-action lawsuit to stop or modify the Google Print Library Project.

Google is already the world's search engine of choice for finding anything and everything on the Web. But the company has always aimed higher, declaring: "Google's mission is to organize the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful."

Much of that information is locked away inside books, most of which can't be searched electronically.

In October, the company started Google Print ( to fill the gap.

The first part of the initiative, the Google Print Publisher Program, isn't causing a fuss. The Publisher Program allows anyone who owns the copyright to a book -- an author or a publisher -- to let Google digitize the entire text of the book. Publishers decide how much of the book you'll see when a Google search results in a hit; it could be just a sentence or two, or several pages.

Almost all the major New York publishers, as well as many small presses and independent authors, are participating in the Publisher Program. The benefit for them is obvious: Google users will discover relevant books, and may decide to buy the books to learn more.

The second part of the program, unveiled in December, immediately antagonized authors and publishers.

The Library Project is an agreement with the universities of Stanford, Harvard, Michigan and Oxford, as well as the New York Public Library, to scan their entire collections and convert the scanned pages into searchable electronic text.

Stanford alone has 8.5 million books and journals on its shelves, explaining why the Library Project will run for six years or more. Google is already loading stacks of Stanford books into trucks, taking them to a scanning facility in Mountain View, returning them, and picking up the next load.

Some of what's in these libraries isn't protected by copyright, including government documents and any books published before 1923. But most of the collections are under copyright.

Google is relying on the legal doctrine of "fair use" to scan books under copyright. Fair use allows the public to comment on copyrighted works, as well as quote from them in a limited way. It's how a reviewer can cite several sentences or even several paragraphs from a new book, without permission from the publisher or author.

For books under copyright, Google says it will display no more than two or three sentences surrounding the highlighted search term.

"Fair use is not a one-size-fits-all thing," counters Paul Aiken, executive director of the New York-based Author's Guild.

Google is getting value from the Library Project because the search pages would ultimately display ads along the side. Authors and publishers therefore deserve compensation, Aiken argues.

I disagree, as do many legal experts. Copyright law supports so-called "transformative" efforts, where someone seeks to profit from fair use. A book review in this newspaper, after all, contributes to our goal of attracting readers who also look at our advertising.

Google talked at length this summer with the Association of American Publishers, which represents about 300 book publishers in the United States, and couldn't come to an agreement. But Google did unilaterally offer to remove individual books from the Library Project at the request of copyright holders.

This could give effective veto power to big publishers. If they ship Google a list of every copyrighted book in their files, the Library Project would be forced to leave out hundreds of thousands or even millions of titles -- enough to keep the project from becoming a comprehensive tool for searching the world's most important books.

Andrew Herkovic, a top administrator in Stanford's library system, warns of an impending "digital Dark Ages" in which information not available electronically is lost to all but a handful of future archaeologists willing to unearth dusty, long-neglected book-shelves.

Talks between Google and the Association of American Publishers are set to resume this month. Let's hope both sides find a way for the Library Project to move forward, unfettered, so Google really can make all the world's information universally accessible.

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