December 9, 2005

Google gets Microsoft treatment on book search efforts

Author: Jay Lyman

Microsoft and Google have engaged in a bit of role reversal when it comes to making it possible to search print books online. This time around, Microsoft and an open technology community are fighting against Google, a rival seen as aggressive, arrogant, and set on doing its own thing for the sake of its cause.

Despite throttling down its aspirations for Google Print, renamed Book Search, the Internet search wunderkind is still the scorn of many at the publishing and technology crossroads.

Google claims it is taken aback by portrayals of the issue as a battle between Google's aspirations and opposition to openness. The company typically embraces openness with its own development, the Summer of Code, donations to universities, and other open source support.

IDC analyst Sue Feldman, who knows the issues around the digitization of printed books and other materials from her time working on copyright and permissions for publishing groups and with Cornell University, said Google is paying the price for being first out with its idea to make searching for books as easy as searching for keywords.

"When you have a good idea, you just assume it's good and go ahead and do it," she said in describing the situation.

Google is also competing with the Yahoo- and Microsoft-supported Open Content Alliance (OCA), a coordinated multimedia archive effort of technology, nonprofit, government, and other organizations rooted in open source ideas.

Microsoft, whose history is marked more by following and tweaking than by leading, is quick to point out the significance of its membership in the OCA and the need for support from a number of players to put book search results online. "We see it as an important part of our strategy," said MSN product manager Justin Osmer. "The more companies involved in addressing this challenge of digitizing printed content the better, and the OCA provides a great framework for us all to agree on the processes we will take to make digitization happen."

While it hasn't joined the OCA, Google said it supports the organization's effort. "It's wonderful," said Google senior product manager and IP counsel Alex Macgillivray. "Our reaction in a word is positive. The way people have characterized it is weird to us."

When asked why Google had not joined the OCA, Macgillivray said the company was talking with the alliance, but added it was only "a partial solution to how do you index the world's books.

"They definitely have a different approach and different technology," he said. "We're really focused on making more of the world's information findable. We don't see it as going out on a limb. We think it's a tremendous opportunity to be first here."

For its part, Microsoft's Osmer said the company, through the OCA and its own efforts, wants to work with copyright holders to find a beneficial way to get books digitized. "We will clearly respect all copyrights and work with each partner providing the information to work out mutually agreeable protections on copyrights," he said.

That is strikingly close to what Google has said, although its unabashed approach and grand visions may have struck a nerve in the publishing community. Basex CEO and chief analyst Jonathan Spira said despite similar approaches from competitors, it is Google's arrogance and attitude that has earned it much of the criticism around Google Book Search.

"They basically took the attitude that we know what's best for you. Take your medicine," Spira said, noting that Google now says its scaled-back plan to start with public domain books was what the company had in mind all along.

Spira indicated Google, which just donated $3 million to a World Digital Library campaign from the US Library of Congress, had failed to convey the value of putting books online to copyright holders, adding, "They seem to be failing in their ability to communicate that."

Google's Macgillivray, who attended the OCA kickoff party, said that Google remains undeterred by the criticism. He claimed that even Google's opponents have been favorable to the idea of digitizing books. "The overwhelming emotion is support and even some of our critics don't disagree with Google that this is a huge public benefit. Just because some people out there may make negative comments, that won't stop us from delivering value to our users."

Searching, suing, and staking out first place

"Questions of intellectual property are really messy," IDC's Feldman said. She said that authors want their works available to as many people as possible, but that the matter of compensation is equally, if not more, important. "That part, very often, is missed with the idea that information should be free."

Feldman noted that the issues include who decides what content goes online, how it gets there, and how that might influence an Internet user's view of history, but said none of those were being addressed since the fight moved to the courts.

"We haven't caught up with a mechanism," she said, referring to compensation and accountability for copyright holders. "Instead, we have a bunch of people suing each other."

Suggesting some kind of monetization platform run by a third party, Feldman said the more large organizations behind the effort to digitize more printed content, the better.

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