In a setback to Google’s efforts to fend off a copyright infringement suit stemming from its ambitious plan to create digital copies of millions of books, rivalsearch engineYahoo has declined to provide information about its own book digitization efforts.
Neither Yahoo nor Google would comment, but reports suggest Yahoo refused to cooperate with Google because it felt the request for information was an attempt to capture trade secrets.
In declining to cooperate with a subpoena issued by Google, Yahoo joinsAmazon, which previously denied Google access to information about its own digitization efforts. Amazon has digitally copied books to allow shoppers on its site to browse through them and search them for specific terms.
Yahoo is part of an alliance that includesMicrosoft, which is working to create a rival database of digitally scanned books.
Several publishing firms, together with the Authors Guild, brought the suit against Google a year ago. They claim that the Google Print project, designed to digitally copy books and make them available on the Internet, would violate copyrights.
Google has begun seeking information on other book digitization programs, including Amazon’s and the one backed by Yahoo and Microsoft.
On the Offensive
The suit was filed in September 2005, after the Google Print announcement stirred up a tornado of controversy. Book authors and publishers expressed concerns that contemporary works would be swept up in Google’s digitization push, along with books currently in the public domain due to their age — such as classic literature.
Google had struck deals with some publishers to include their works in the program, and has argued all along that having books available digitally could boost sales by allowing users to conduct keyword searches.
Google said users would not be able to download entire copies of copyright-protected books, but instead would be referred to a site, such as Amazon, or the publisher’s own home page, where the book could be purchased.
To help build its defense in the suit, Google issued a number of subpoenas in October, asking Yahoo, Microsoft, and publishers HarperCollins, Random House and Holtzbrinck to provide details on every book the companies have made available online or plan to by the end of 2009.
In issuing the subpoenas, Google said it was seeking “documents sufficient to show you possess the legal right to include each book” in any scanning project, as well as information on how those companies viewed the issues of fair use and copyright.
Google agreed to comply with a court order requiring that all information obtained be used only in its defense in the case and not for competitive advantage, though some attorneys have questioned whether companies realistically could be guaranteed that anything they turned over would not weaken their competitive positions.
The two sides in the argument over digitizing books have dug their heels in, making a settlement unlikely, according to search engine analyst John Battelle. For publishers, the industry’s very existence as the intermediary between authors and readers is on the line.
For Google, the case will test how far it can stretch its fair use exemption under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), with implications beyond the printed word.
“This is not just about books,” Battelle told the E-Commerce Times. Many of the publishers backing the suit are also major owners in electronic media, he noted. “One can easily see how this extends to video.”
In many ways, the Google Print push has become a symbol of Google’s far-reaching ambition to make all the world’s content available online — and searchable. That ambition is lauded by some and feared by others, who worry that Google will control too much digital content.
Google was still a relatively young company when it announced plans to digitize millions of books, a 10-year project to make some of the world’s greatest libraries, including the New York Public Library and the libraries of Harvard, the University of California and Oxford University.
European librarians have roundly criticized the push, arguing that it will result in a Web that is heavily slanted toward English-language texts. The publishing industry has been divided, with some recognizing the potential to open up new sales avenues and others worrying abut copyright infringement.
The Google Print project was one of the early indications that the search giant had the desire to extend its reach well beyond what had traditionally been considered the Internet world, Forrester Research analyst Charlene Li told the E-Commerce Times.
“The sheer boldness of what they proposed to do made it clear they were a different kind of company,” she said.