Digitizing books and making them available online to everybody is a good thing. Or is it?


Say you write a book. Say someone illicitly obtains a digitized copy and posts it on the Internet. Thousands of people download your book — for free — and the hard copies on bookstore shelves go unsold. Disgusted at your book’s performance, your publisher sends the returned copies to Cheap Books R Us and says thanks but no thanks to your next manuscript.

You’ve now lost years of work, and your career is idling, if not coughing to a halt.

Meanwhile, your publisher has lost thousands of dollars on paper, printing costs, distribution, marketing, and your (probably measly) advance.

This is, roughly, the Napster-like nightmare of authors and publishers feeling threatened by online libraries and searchable texts — namely, Google’s partnership with five major libraries to digitize their entire collections and make them searchable online, whether under copyright or not. Despite assurances that a keyword search will deliver only snippets of any book, and predictions that those searches might actually lead to increased book sales, publishers and authors have sued Google over its Print Libraries program. One of the plaintiffs’ main concerns is the fact that Google’s library partners will get full digital copies of every book, even those under copyright.

“We’re not opposed to the basic idea of making books searchable online, just not without getting a license to do so,” says Paul Aiken, executive director of the Authors Guild, whose suit against Google is pending. “It’s a pretty plain case of copyright infringement.”

Now, both sides are proclaiming their rights. Google says it’s only creating an electronic card catalog, and that allowing people to search books amounts to “fair use” under copyright law. Publishers and authors can opt out of the Print Libraries project by asking Google to withdraw their books.

On the other hand, publishers and authors think Google is appropriating “the property of others for its own commercial use unless it is told, case by case and instance by instance, not to,” according to a statement from the Association of American­ University Presses. And it doesn’t help Google’s cause that it happens to be the most successful online company in the United States, with a market capitalization of some $123 billion (at press time). If anyone could afford to pay authors and publishers for the right to put texts online, or so the reasoning goes, it’s Google.