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GOOGLE, THE INTERNET POWERHOUSE, has an immodest stock price and an equally immodest goal: to organize all the world's information.
It has run into several hurdles along the way, however, as copyright holders objected to their works being duplicated in the Google database without payment or permission. The latest to cry foul are book publishers, who are up in arms over Google's plan to make a digital copy of all the volumes in three major university libraries. The aim of the company's effort, called Google Print for Libraries, is to let users search through the universe of printed text the way they do through pages on the World Wide Web. From the publishers' perspective, however, Google is trying to make money from their works without paying for the rights.
If those complaints sound familiar, it's because they are: The major record labels had a similar reaction in 1999 to the original Napster, which let users download songs for free from one another's computers. But Google is no Napster, and publishers should recognize the difference -- and the opportunity.
According to Google, users who search for a word or phrase will receive links to custom-made Web pages, each of which offers three short excerpts from a book that contains the item being sought. The pages will also offer ways to order the book or to search for it in a library nearby.
If this is in fact what Google does, it would be a boon not just for publishers but also for readers. The project amounts to a 21st century card catalog, helping people find relevant books online with the kind of precision that Internet users have come to expect.
To make this service a reality, though, Google is skating dangerously close to the line between fair use and piracy. It plans to make multiple copies of each book, storing them on computers scattered around the Internet to make searches run faster.
Google would not be acting in good faith if it gave less than Ft. Knox-level protection to the digitized texts. And even in ordinary use, its service could pose a problem for some types of reference material -- just as free online dictionaries and encyclopedias already threaten the value of their bound counterparts.
To address these and other concerns, the company has told publishers it will delay until November its work on copyrighted texts and will not scan any items that the copyright owner does not want included. The Assn. of American Publishers was outraged by this offer, saying Google is trying to turn copyright law inside out. Google should have to ask permission to copy a book for its database, they say, it shouldn't be up to publishers to object. Google argues that it is making a fair use of the books.
The dispute could easily wind up in the courts. Meanwhile, Google should show more respect for publishers' rights -- and publishers should not make the mistake of using the strictures of copyright law to tie their own hands. Building a guide to the contents of books is hardly the same as making bootlegged copies or plagiarizing. It's a monumental and costly task, and publishers have given no reason to believe they can do it for themselves. Unless their works are as well integrated with the Net as other forms of information and entertainment, they may be left waiting on the shelves for an audience that no longer bothers to walk through the stacks.