U.S. publisher HarperCollins said on Monday it plans to convert some 20,000 books in its catalog into digital form in a bid to rein in potential copyright violations on the Internet.

The move comes as the U.S. publishing industry is bringing lawsuits against Web search leader Google Inc. (GOOG) over its effort to scan copyrighted books in libraries — a move the industry fears would set a dangerous copyright precedent.

Chief executive Jane Friedman said HarperCollins, a division of News Corp. (NWS), had no immediate plan to raise revenue from the digital copies of the books, but it had concluded it was a vital move to protect its authors' rights.

"This is going to be a costly initiative," she said, adding that a budget had not yet been set but the cost was expected to run into millions of dollars. The publisher has invited proposals from vendors to carry out the contract to digitize some 20,000 or more books in the global back catalog, as well as the 3,500 to 5,000 new books it publishes each year.

"We just don't know how many millions [of dollars] this will be and we won't know that until we get responses," said Brian Murray, group president of HarperCollins Publishers.

"We hope to have a few thousand books available by the middle of next year," he told Reuters.

Under the plan, HarperCollins will hold all the digital copies of its books in a digital warehouse and it will allow companies such as Google, Yahoo (YHOO) and Amazon.com (AMZN) to crawl the server to create an index, Murray said.

This will allow Google and other search systems to offer what, in effect, amount to electronic card catalogs to help users locate the full work.

"If publishers don't do this, there are going to be too many digital copies of books out there," he said, noting that currently companies like Google, Yahoo and others were all making their own copies, making it difficult for publishers to ensure their authors' copyright is respected.

In October, five major publishers filed suit against Google, seeking to block plans to scan copyrighted works without permission and derail Google's push to make many of the world's great books searchable online.

The suit seeks a declaration that Google infringes on the publishers' copyrights when the Web search leader scans entire books without permission of copyright owners.

At issue are rights of copyright holders versus the public's "fair use" interest in being free to use limited portions of books for commentary or review, for what resembles a kind of full-text, searchable card catalog.

Google was not immediately available to comment.

HarperCollins was not a plaintiff in the suit, but Friedman said Monday's announcement would have no impact on that legal process.

"We are totally supportive of the law suit both economically and philosophically," she told Reuters.

Google's digital book program has two planks — one involving libraries and copyrighted books that has publishers up in arms, and one in which it partners with publishers directly to scan books with permission and offers excerpts of several pages with links to sales outlets and libraries.

The HarperCollins digitizing project would have an impact on the latter.

"We have very good relationship with Google and with Amazon," Friedman said. "This is not antagonistic in any way or vindictive. We want to be collaborative. But as a publisher we have to take charge of our lives."

She said that while there were no concrete plans in place to make money from the project, there were various possibilities down the line, from e-books to subscriptions or advertising.

"Those things are possible and they will all happen most probably more quickly than not," she said.

"Right now we're not selling ... our first concern is protecting the authors' copyright. But we're not non-profit, obviously. We're going to look to monetize all this."

"Do I believe people will be reading novels on their cell phones? Who knows?" she added.

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