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Surprise alliance for MSN book search prompts concern

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Microsoft has been trying to control its own destiny in the critical Internet search business, crafting its own technologies to replace those it has licensed from a rival. But in announcing a new book-search initiative last week, the company took a different approach.

In a surprise move, Microsoft said it would create its new MSN Book Search service by working with the Open Content Alliance, a group founded to digitize and index books and other media. The group's founding members include Yahoo!, the very competitor from which Microsoft is trying to untie other parts of its Internet search business.

Under the circumstances, Microsoft's move might seem odd. But some in the technology industry see it as an example of the lengths to which Microsoft will go in its rivalry with Google.

Tim O'Reilly, whose O'Reilly Media book-publishing company belongs to the Open Content Alliance, expressed concern on his weblog that the group was "being hijacked by Microsoft as a way of undermining Google."

O'Reilly's comment arose from the fact that joining the alliance gave Microsoft a chance to try to cast itself in a positive light -- while contrasting itself with the Web search leader.

That's because Google has been involved in a high-profile dispute with book publishers and authors over its plan to scan in copyrighted books for searching in its Google Print Library project. Announcing its MSN Book Search initiative, Microsoft signed on to the Open Content Alliance's vow to incorporate copyrighted content only with permission of copyright holders.

"It's certainly much more complex, but it's the right way to do it," said Danielle Tiedt, MSN's general manager of search content acquisition. "For us, protecting copyright is really a core philosophical belief. I think it's the only way, long term, to make sure that this actually comes to market in the right way."

One of the primary groups opposing Google said it was pleased by Microsoft's approach.

"We're very excited about the Microsoft project because it appears, unlike Google, they are doing it the right way," said Pat Schroeder, president of the Association of American Publishers, which represents five publishing companies that have sued Google over its initiative.

To be sure, Microsoft points to some key business advantages in joining the alliance. With the company's contribution of funding, $5 million initially, the group will scan in books for the MSN Book Search service, removing the need for Microsoft to handle the task on its own.

The scanned content will also be available for free on the non-profit Internet Archive. Microsoft's Book Search service, expected to launch in preliminary form next year with 150,000 books, will enhance the raw content with extra features and ways to use the search results.

Tiedt also noted that Microsoft is sensitive to the rights of copyright holders, given its own efforts to prevent unauthorized copying of its software.

In an interview, O'Reilly said his use of the word "hijacking" was a little strong, in hindsight, to describe Microsoft's motives for participating in the Open Content Alliance.

He said he thinks it's good that Microsoft is participating in the group.

Still, he said he considers it inaccurate to portray Google as the "bad guy" for its initiative and Microsoft as the "good guy" for joining the alliance.

In reality, O'Reilly said, the fundamental aims of the alliance and Google aren't opposed. Both initiatives are trying to make more books searchable and more accessible.

"Overall, this is a good thing," he said of the various efforts to scan and index the world's books. "Effectively, there's competition to come up with the right answer."

Microsoft says it is exploring a variety of possible business models for its services, and talking with publishers about arrangements that would allow it to use their copyrighted works.

The Open Content Alliance arose from discussions between Yahoo! and the Internet Archive, but was planned as something that would be "hospitable to other companies" that agree with the group's underlying principles, said Rick Prelinger, administrator of the alliance and board president of the Internet Archive.

"Whoever agrees with those principles and has a contribution to make -- whether it's funding or content or tools or facilities or services -- they were going to be welcome," Prelinger said. "From the beginning, there was a hope that (Microsoft) would join."

Prelinger said he wants to see companies, groups and publishers work together to figure out ways to get books and other content online.

Companies such as Google, Microsoft and Yahoo could then "compete on the basis of tools and services -- the value-added," Prelinger said.

Google defends its Print Library project as legal and says the search service will actually encourage book sales.

But some book publishers are worried saying, among other things, that the initiative would set an improper precedent that could be abused.

Prelinger said the Internet Archive's relationship with Google is positive and that he hopes to work out an arrangement for the company to join the alliance.

He also said he sees no reason to question Microsoft's motives in joining the group.

"They made a substantial gift," he said, referring to the money Microsoft is paying for books to be scanned into the public database.

"That doesn't seem like undermining to me."

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