Google argues with U.K. publishers over digital libraries

The tech giant says its book search project helps publishers sell books, but publishers beg to differ.

Google has again clashed with publishers over its controversial program to scan, digitize and make searchable the collections of libraries in the U.S. and the U.K.

Publishers hit out at Google over the plan, and the effect it will have on copyright, at Monday's launch of a report on digital rights management from the All Party Internet Group, an independent British parliamentary organization.

"There is the serious issue of the digitization of massive library collections where the majority of works are in copyright. Google digitizes entire books, not just indexing but displaying the entire work," said Hugh Jones, copyright counsel for the Publishers Association.

"It's important to remember that publishers want to publish and find markets--we're not interested in locking up content. We love search engines, but there is an instructive distinction between library services and publisher services," Jones added.

The Google Book Search project, previously called Google Print, was launched in 2004. It quickly attracted controversy, and Google is currently being sued for alleged copyright infringement in the U.S.

Rachel Whetstone, European head of communications for Google, defended the search giant's project, saying that only two or three pages of each copyright-protected text were available for viewing.

"If publishers don't want to participate in the books program, we exclude them. Sixty percent or more of books have unclear copyright status," Whetstone said.

Google also claimed that it boosts publishers' sales by including advertisements and information on where to buy the books.

"We put adverts on the side (of the Web page). With millions of people online, we turn those searchers into buyers," Whetstone said.

She argued that the project doesn't necessarily infringe on copyright law, because of the way Google displays the text. "To make a book searchable, we have to index the whole work, then we display snippets," she said.

"You copy the whole text," said Jones, the Publishers Association counsel.

Whetstone replied: "That is how a search engine works--scan first, then index."

"You are creating a massive digital file without consulting the copyright owner, when the burden of responsibility (to prove copyright infringement) rests on the copyright owner," responded Jones. "A powerful organization like Google has an exact copy of works and is making that available to a number of libraries."

"You take a different view to us, and that is what a court will decide. We believe our program falls within copyright law," Whetstone said.

Lynne Brindley, chief executive of the British Library, didn't appear surprised that Google has found itself at odds with the established print industry.

"There's not necessarily a coincidence of interest between search engines and copyright holders," said Brindley.

Laurie Kaye of Laurence Kaye Solicitors backed up this point: "Commercial players are concerned about the loss of control over their content. Their content database being held on other servers creates uncertainty. I'm not going to go into the legalities of what Google is doing."

Google responded by saying that it was not a content provider, but instead pointed to others' content.

"We believe we help to find others' content. We have addressed those concerns (of commercial players)," Whetstone said.

Tom Espiner of ZDNet UK reported from London.

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