But there's a big catch: Many of those books are protected by copyrights, and Google is requiring copyright holders to opt out of the scanning process if they don't want their books in libraries to be searchable.
That's raised plenty of hackles among publishers, who argue that they--not Google--should control who can see and search the books. And last week, five leading publishers filed suit against Google to stop the program.
"It's a commercial use" of the books and therefore a copyright violation, said Ralph Oman, a lawyer and former Register of Copyrights for the U.S. Copyright office. "This is masquerading as an educational use (which wouldn't be an obvious violation), but from Google's point of view this is a money-making exercise."
But not every copyright expert is so sure Google is on thin ice. Truth is, there's no consensus in the legal community on this one-of-a-kind case. The fight comes down to a simple question: Is the search king setting itself up to be a copyright violator of epic proportions, or is it a champion of learning trying to make even the most obscure books readily accessible in a Web search?
"It's an incredibly interesting test case. I don't see a clear winner, at the moment," said Bruce Sostek, an intellectual-property lawyer at the Dallas firm of Thompson & Knight. "The issue of supplanting the rights of authors and trying to substitute ones and zeros for real books, I think there is something that strikes people as unsettling about that."
The library scanning project is part of Google's Print Program, which was launched a year ago with the goal of making books all over the world as full-text searchable as possible through a virtual or electronic card catalog.
The Print Program has two components, one for publishers and one for libraries. Under the Google Publisher Program, the company is working with book publishers to make titles searchable and easy to purchase. The search result pages include advertisements if publishers want them, and most of the revenue goes to the publishers, Google said.
The controversial part of the Print Program, which has prompted two lawsuits so far, is the Print Library Project. Under the Library Project, the search giant is scanning, digitizing and making searchable parts or all of the collections from Stanford University, Harvard University, Oxford University, the University of Michigan and The New York Public Library.
Google says it will scan copyright protected books from libraries unless the publisher or copyright holder expressly opts out. If the book is copyright protected, there is minimal text, only a few sentences, or "snippets," surrounding the keywords searched. There are no ads on Google Library Project pages.
If the work is in the public domain, the entire page will be shown and