Google turns to Europe to flesh out Book Search

In its mission to build the world’s largest library of printed works, Google is expanding its controversial Google Book Search programme in Europe with an aim to scan every page of hundreds of thousands of non-English language books on library shelves and in publisher’s archives.

But the megalithic search engine is treading with a rare bit of caution. Stung by lawsuits in the United States from authors and publishing houses who claim the programme violates copyright protections, Google is still weathering questions about its intentions for the 18-month old initiative.

The programme, said Jans Redmer, European director of Google Book Search, aims to unite readers with hard-to-find books.

‘The biggest threat is not piracy or the Napsterisation of content. It is obsolescence. Content that does not get found, is lost,’ Redmer said at a conference on the future of digital media organized by the Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development held in Rome. ‘The risk perceived here is far outweighed by the opportunities for readers and publishers.’

Yahoo holds a similar ambition to archive what it regards as the sum of ‘all human knowledge’. Bradley Horowitz, director of technology development at Yahoo, envisages this will include all film, audio, pictures and printed works from their inception. ‘There is still so much archiving to do,’ he said.

Unlike Google, Yahoo intends to partner with copyright holders to ensure such works are presented in a manner they are accustomed to. Not surprisingly, Google has a large lead in archiving books.

Still, the day when readers can access at the click of a mouse massive online libraries carrying all the world’s printed works is a long way off. The technology to scan and store the works has been around for years. The main obstacle remains in convincing copyright holders to permit access to their works in digitised form.

Google said it is seeing greater cooperation these days, however. Redmer said Google has already scanned hundreds of thousands of English-language books into its archives with cooperation of a majority of the largest British and American publishing houses and, separately, from five libraries.

The libraries include four university libraries at Oxford, Harvard, Stanford and the University of Michigan. A fifth is the New York Public Library. Google is looking to expand to similarly large university and public libraries in Europe, though it refused to name which ones it was talking to.

Under the books search programme, Google scans every page of a book, but only permits access to a certain number of pages, or, in the case of copyrighted materials, snippets of information relevant to a user’s search. Google then offers links on where to find or purchase the book.

Google insists it does not need a license from the publisher or author to offer limited access in this way as it is promoting sales and readership. The company adds it would never charge for access to the books archive as it views pages of a book as valuable resource to enhance its general search archives.

Politicking will be crucial for Google. ‘Google’s presentation (on Google Books) is now conscious of the concept of hubris. It is interesting to see them say, “we only do this, we only do that”,’ commented Eric Saltzman, a board member of the Creative Commons Internet licensing initiative.

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