In the latest blow to Google Inc.’s Print Library Project, which aims to scan books from major public and academic libraries into its powerful internet search engine, an organization of more than 8,000 authors has accused the company of “massive copyright infringement,” saying Google cannot put its books in the public domain for commercial use without permission.

“The authors’ works are contained in certain public and university libraries and have not been licensed for commercial use,” The Authors Guild Inc. said in a lawsuit filed against Google Sept. 21 in U.S. District Court in Manhattan.

The suit asks the court to block Google from copying the books so the authors would not suffer irreparable harm by being deprived of the right to control reproduction of their works. It seeks class-action status on behalf of anyone or any entity with a copyright to a literary work at the University of Michigan library, one of the participants in Google’s project.

The lawsuit has broad implications for the future of copyright laws that have long preceded the internet. Its outcome could determine how easy it will be for students, scholars, and other people with internet access to benefit from knowledge that is now mostly locked up in books sitting on dusty library shelves, many of them out of print.

“More and more people are expecting access, and they are making do with what they can get easy access to,” said Brewster Kahle, co-founder of the Internet Archive, which runs smaller book-scanning projects, mostly for out-of-copyright works. “Let’s make it so that they find great works rather than whatever just happens to be on the net.”

That’s not how The Authors Guild sees things.

“By reproducing for itself a copy of those works that are not in the public domain, Google is engaging in massive copyright infringement. It has infringed, and continues to infringe, the electronic rights of the copyright holders of those works,” the New York-based nonprofit organization claims.

Google, based in Mountain View, Calif., said in a statement that it respects copyright laws.

“We regret that this group has chosen litigation to try to stop a program that will make books and the information within them more discoverable to the world,” the company said.

To prevent the wholesale file-sharing that is plaguing the entertainment industry, Google has set some limits in its library project: Users won’t be able to print materials easily or read more than small portions of copyright-protected works online.

Google also says it will send readers hungry for more directly to booksellers and libraries.

But the authors’ guild, and many publishers, remain wary.

To endorse Google’s library initiative is to say “it’s OK to break into my house because you’re going to clean my kitchen,” said Sally Morris, chief executive of the U.K.-based Association of Learned and Professional Society Publishers. “Just because you do something that’s not harmful or [is] beneficial doesn’t make it legal.”

Morris and other publishers believe Google must get their permission first, as it has under the Print Publisher Program it launched in October 2004, two months before announcing the library initiative.

Under the publishers’ program, Google has deals with most major U.S. and U.K. publishers. It scans titles they submit, displays digital images of selected pages triggered by search queries, and gives publishers a cut of revenues from accompanying ad displays.

But publishers aren’t submitting all their titles under that program, and many of the titles Google wants to scan are out of print and belong to no publisher at all, the company says.

Jim Gerber, Google’s director of content partnerships, says the company would get no more than 15 percent of all books ever published if it relied solely on publisher submissions.

That’s why it has turned to libraries.

Under the Print Library Project, Google is scanning millions of copyrighted books from libraries at Harvard, Michigan, and Stanford universities, along with out-of-copyright materials there and at two other libraries.

Google has unilaterally set this rule: Publishers can tell it which books not to scan at all, similar to how web site owners can request to be left out of search engine indexes. In August, the company halted the scanning of copyright books until Nov. 1, saying it wanted to give publishers time to compile their lists.

Richard Hull, executive director of the Text and Academic Authors Association, called Google’s approach backwards. Publishers shouldn’t have to bear the burden of record-keeping, he said.

Google, which wouldn’t say how many books it has scanned so far, says it believes its initiative is protected under the “fair use” provisions of copyright law.

Gerber argues that the initiative will “stimulate more people to contribute to the arts and the sciences by making these books more findable.”

Washington lawyer Jonathan Band says Google’s case is strong, given the limits on display–a few sentences at a time for works scanned from libraries, with technology making it difficult to recreate even a single page.

“I don’t see how making a few snippets of a work available to a user could have any negative impact on the market,” said Band, who has advised library groups and internet companies on copyright issues.

Under Google’s strictures, readers can see just five pages at a time of publisher-submitted titles–and no more than 20 percent of an entire book through multiple searches. For books in the public domain, they can read the entire book online.

Not all authors and publishers are opposed.

“For a typical author, obscurity is a far greater threat than piracy,” said Tim O’Reilly, chief executive of O’Reilly Media and an adviser to Google’s project. “Google is offering publishers an amazing opportunity for people to discover their content.”

James Hilton, associate provost and interim librarian at the University of Michigan, said his school is contributing 7 million volumes over six years because one day, materials that aren’t searchable online simply won’t get read.

“That doesn’t mean it’s going to be read online, but it’s not going to be found if it’s not online,” he said.

The technology juggernaut, whose name is synonymous with online search, isn’t just shaking up book publishing.

Google has a separate project to archive television programs but so far has received limited permissions. The company also faces lawsuits over facilitating access to news resources and pornographic images online.

Jonathan Zittrain, an internet legal scholar affiliated with Oxford and Harvard universities, says the book-scanning dispute comes down balancing commercial and social benefits.

“From the point of view of the [authors], you can’t blame them for playing their role, which is to maximize sales,” he said. “But if fair use wasn’t found, [Google] would never be able to do the mass importation of books required to make a database that is socially useful.”

Links:

Google’s Print Library Project
http://print.google.com

The Authors Guild
http://www.authorsguild.org

Internet Archive
http://www.archive.org