Google Inc.'s online book project will take an important step forward next week despite an increasingly nasty legal fight over the company's plans.
On Tuesday, the Internet search giant will resume scanning into its database a large number of library books that subject to copyright laws.
It stopped doing so in August, following threats by publishers and to give copyright holders ample time to remove the works if they saw fit. Google has also since changed its own policies to let copyright holders opt out any time.
While in no way a surprise, Google's decision takes on added significance in the face of two recently filed copyright lawsuits alleging Google will be breaking copyright laws if it makes this collection of books available online.
In a way, Google is serving notice of its intent to see its Google Print (search) project through despite even legal obstacles, which has profound impact on other online library projects and the form of future copyright law.
"We're so determined to pursue Google Print, even though it has drawn industry opposition in the form of two lawsuits," Google Vice President David Drummond (search) recently wrote on Google's Weblog.
"We're dedicated to helping the world find information, and there's too much information in books that cannot yet be found online. We think you should be able to search through every word of every book ever written, and come away with a list of relevant books to buy or find at your local library," he adds.
The hullabaloo concerns Google Print, which is like any other search engine except for the first time you can explore the contents of books.
Users type in a single word or phrase they are interested in, and in return they receive a listing of relevant portions of books, sometimes with advertising from book publishers or retailers.
Not all of Google Print is controversial. Its Google Publisher Program (search) arm, which lets retailers, publishers and authors contribute their own copyrighted work, is problem-free. Retailers are embracing it because it's a new, and potentially very powerful, marketing tool.
The Google Print Library Project (search) is causing the stir. Google is scanning entire collections of books in the possession of four major U.S. universities and the New York Public Library (search). It's estimated that about 60 percent of tens of millions of books represented by these collections are still copyright protected.
If that's the case, Google said search results will contain only a few sentences relevant to the search query, and not huge swaths of the book.
Those conditions still aren't making many people in the publishing industry very happy. In recent weeks, The Authors Guild (search), representing writers, and the Association of American Publishers (search), representing publishers, filed separate lawsuits in the same U.S. District Court against Google.
The complaints allege Google Print is, potentially, one of history's biggest cases of copyright infringement.
"The bigger issue is that if Google is allowed to unilaterally make copies of a copyrighted work, what's to stop someone else from coming in and doing it again, but this time making the whole work available?" AAP President Patricia Schroeder (search) recently told Ziff Davis Internet.
Google admits to the copying allegation, without hesitation. But it contends copying the entire book is required in order to fully index the contents so they can be thoroughly searched.
The controversy is about how Google at first assumed it was OK to include any book it wanted in its search database, rather than first seek the author's permission. The modus operandi is now at the heart of two federal copyright lawsuits. And perhaps even worse, the discontent the practice causes among authors and publishers has tarnished Google's once sterling image as the company that "does no evil."
"From a big company standpoint, it's textbook arrogance," said analyst Rob Enderle.
What shields Google, it's legal representatives contend, is how it goes about distributing the book contents.
Because people only receive a couple of sentences at a time, at best, it would be quite the feat to extract an entire book out of Google Print, goes Google's legal argument.
Also, Google has no intention of redistributing the entire book. Rather, its goal is to expand the amount and type of information it makes available.
Predicting the outcome of the lawsuits requires a large grain of salt, but increasingly, people are giving Google less of a chance of wining the suit. One wild card in its favor is that its case will be heard by one of the most pro-copyright of the federal courts, where Google's motives and practices are more likely to be called into question.
Google did not provide someone to speak to on the record for the story. Rather, a company spokesman pointed to its blog, where it vigorously defends Google Print.
"Litigation is going to slow the overall process," says analyst Enderle. "However, as these cases proceed, they will no doubt create case law that we'll be using for the next several decades, perhaps hundreds of years."
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