Attacks on Google Book Search ‘much ado about nothing’

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Canadian IT industry observers are characterizing the controversy over Microsoft Corp.’s recent allegations that Google Inc.’s online book search service violates publisher copyright as little more than a storm in a teacup.

Nevertheless, the analysts have urged authors and publishers to get involved in the debate on which Web-based search model best serves their industry.

The controversy is “much ado about nothing…Microsoft and Google are just playing a high stakes game of one-upmanship,” according to Carmi Levy, senior analyst at Info-Tech Research Group Inc. in London, Ont.

The Redmond, Wash.-based software maker and the search engine firm based in Mountain View, Calif. both want to scan books and include the digitized information on an Internet-based site. But Microsoft recently alleged its competitor’s methods infringe on the intellectual property rights of authors and publishers.

“The reality is authors and publishers need to get in bed with search engines to remain relevant,” said Levy.

An open source software advocate, meanwhile, said Microsoft is using fear and confusion to scare publishers into adopting its own book search model.

“Microsoft is being a FUD (fear, uncertainty, doubt) engine,” said Russell McOrmond, policy coordinator for the Canadian Association for Open Source (CLUE), in Ottawa.

Last week, Microsoft lawyer, Thomas Rubin told members of the Association of American Publishers (AAP) that Google’s Book Search abuses copyright protection while Microsoft’s Live Search Books honours it.

He said Google has taken the position that it can scan, catalogue and display content published in book form under fair use principles, unless the copyright holder tells them not to. Google then profits from this material by running advertisements along with it.

Rubin said Microsoft seeks copyright permission from authors/publishers of all copyrighted material before publishing it.

“In my view, Google has chosen the wrong path for the longer term, because it systematically violates and deprives authors and publishers of an important avenue for monetizing their works,” said Rubin.

He also accused Google of creating no content of its own, while “[making} money solely on the backs of other people’s content and are raking in billions through advertising and IPOs”.

But Levy said Microsoft’s allegations against its rival can basically apply to the software giant itself. “It’s much like the pot calling the kettle black.”

“It’s a battle to get the most votes from the publishers,” said McOrmond “and the protagonists are beginning to sound more like politicians on a campaign”

He noted that Microsoft’s “platform” is basically offering an opt-in model, under which the company will only scan books that authors and publishers have given them permission to include in their database.

He said Google’s opt-out model, on the other hand, would scan books in the public domain. Authors and publishers who do not want their works in Google’s Book Search must contact the company to have their property removed from the site.

“As to opt-in vs opt-out, it is unfortunately going to be left to the courts to decide on liability issues,” McOrmond said.

McOrmond said his concern with Microsoft’s Live Search Books is that the system will “leave out a large body of work.”

“Basically they are saying that works of authors that they can not locate do not exist and will not be digitized.”

Digitizing books, according to McOrmond, is one way of saving literature from destruction.

He said an opt-in model could mean only the more popular books, which only constitute a small percentage of the world’s published material, will be saved.

The situation, he said, would be akin to the film industry’s dilemma where older celluloid movies are degenerating and not being saved in digital format, while lawyers continue to argue over copyright issues.

“Hopefully there will be enough people (including lawyers and judges) who recognize the social benefits of Google’s model. We need to have the default take into consideration the vast majority rather than the tiny few.”

Levy, on the other hand, noted that authors and publishers have been relatively silent. “Ideally they should get into the debate because this could mean their livelihood.”

“We need publishers to make deals with Google so that they won’t be lining up to try to sue Google to the detriment of us all,” said McOrmond.

On the other hand, Levy said at the moment it would be very hard to judge which company is offering a better model “because they are both charting new territory.”

“Microsoft is trying hard to raise public awareness for its model because in truth Google has a two-year lead in the search business.”

Levy, however said, mud slinging can only end up hurting both parties concerned.

“When two people start throwing mud at each other, they both get dirty.”

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