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Publishers throw book at Google

Five major publishers filed suit against Google Inc. in Manhattan’s federal court Wednesday seeking to block plans to scan copyrighted works without permission.
/ Source: Reuters

Five major publishers filed suit against Google Inc. on Wednesday, 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 complaint, lodged in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, names as plaintiffs McGraw-Hill Cos. Inc., Pearson Plc’s Pearson Education and Penguin Group (USA) units, Viacom Inc.’s Simon & Schuster and John Wiley & Sons Inc.

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.

“If Google can make ... copies, then anyone can,” Patricia Schroeder, president of the Association of American Publishers, said in a phone interview. “Anybody could go into a library and start making digital copies of anything,” she said.

Legal experts say the dispute between Google and the publishing industry is shaping up as a new front in the battle over digital duplication of media, including music, movies and now books.

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, analysts say.

“Creating an easy-to-use index of books is fair use under copyright law and supports the purpose of copyright: to increase the awareness and sales of books, directly benefiting copyright holders,” said David Drummond, Google’s attorney.

“This short-sighted attempt to block Google Print works counter to the interests of not just the world’s readers, but also the world’s authors and publishers,” the general counsel said.

The Association of American Publishers, which orchestrated the lawsuit against Google, said in a statement that it took the action after lengthy talks broke down last week over the copyright implications of the Google Print Library Project.

The publishers’ legal action aims to keep Google from setting a precedent that would open the door for anyone to digitally duplicate books and use them as they please, said Schroeder, a former U.S. congresswoman from Colorado.

In September, the Authors Guild and U.S. writers Herbert Mitgang, Betty Miles and Daniel Hoffman filed a separate lawsuit against Google that made similar allegations.

The Authors Guild filing is a class-action lawsuit that seeks damages. The new suit seeks a declaratory judgment that Google is committing copyright infringement by scanning books.

Google, which is working with five of the world’s great libraries to digitize their collections, stopped scanning copyrighted books in August in the face of a growing outcry from publishers. But it plans to resume doing so next month.

Google’s plan to have libraries scan the full text of books goes far beyond the analogy of creating a digital version of a card catalog, Schroeder added. “If Google wants a card catalog they can scan the book’s front page for full bibliographic data.”

Supporters of the Google Print project say the scanning of the full text of the books is necessary to create a searchable catalog of the books located within the five libraries’ collections. Google says it has no plans to make full copies of copyrighted works available without their owners’ permission.

“We haven’t changed our position in support of the project,” said James Hilton, interim head of the university library at the University of Michigan. “Users of Google Print will see a snippet of a few lines of text.”

“They will see information about how to find an in-copyright work, either through a bookstore, a publisher or (the closest) library,” Hilton said. But the full text will not be available online,” he stressed.

Google operates a parallel program with major academic, technical and trade publishers to allow readers to search the text of copyrighted books on publisher-controlled Web pages that show several pages of adjoining text and feature links to publisher and other retail outlets for purchasing the books.