Just in time for the start of a new school year, the popular Google search service is making available thousands of classic books free.
For now, the Google Book Search service offers full downloads only of ``public domain" books, whose copyrights have expired. These include many of the most famous titles of all time, such as the writings of Dickens , Shakespeare , and Dante.
It's the latest milestone in Google's campaign to do for books what it has done for websites. ``Our goal is to create a comprehensive, full-text index of all the world's books," said Google Book Search group business product manager Adam Smith. But Google is also providing brief ``snippets" of copyrighted works by major publishers, outraging book publishers and authors who say the company has no right to reproduce them without permission.
In addition to famous titles, Google Book Search features many obscure and forgotten books by long-dead novelists and scholars that it obtained through contracts with libraries at Harvard University, the University of Michigan, Stanford University, Oxford University, and the University of California. The New York Public Library is also participating in the project.
Google began offering its book search service in late 2004. A visitor to books.google.com can type in a few words and get a listing of various books in which the words appear. For instance, a search for ``Sydney Carton," a character in Charles Dickens' novel ``A Tale of Two Cities," produces the novel itself, as well as a variety of other books--including biographies of Dickens and analyses of his work. But until yesterday, Google Book Search lagged behind other, smaller Internet services such as the Gutenberg Project and the Internet Archive.
Now Web users can use Google's powerful servers not only to look up words in the Dickens novel, but also to download a copy -- a process that can take anywhere from a few seconds to about 15 minutes, depending on the size of the book and the speed of the user's Internet connection. The book arrives as a set of scanned images from a printed copy of the book, and some include original drawings, library markings and notes jotted in the margins by previous borrowers. Google Book Search's copy of ``A Tale of Two Cities" was scanned from a copy printed in 1908 by the University Society. A rubber stamp on an inner page indicates that the original book was obtained by the Harvard College Library in 1942.
Google won't say how many books are currently in its index. But with the ability to scan books at six of the world's biggest libraries, Google's library of public domain titles could surpass that of the Gutenberg Project, which contains about 16,000 titles. Meanwhile, Google rivals Yahoo Inc. and Microsoft Corp. are establishing the Open Content Alliance, an alternative index of public domain books. A number of major libraries have signed up to participate, including the Boston Public Library, Johns Hopkins University, the Smithsonian Institution, and the National Archives of the United Kingdom.
The search for Sydney Carton on Google also turned up more recent books of literary history and criticism, some still under copyright. In these cases, Google Book Search only shows small chunks of text from the book, including the specific terms of the search. Google's Smith said his company has formed partnerships with many publishing houses to include snippets from some of their copyrighted books in the index. But even when Google hasn't made such an arrangement, Smith said, the legal doctrine of ``fair use" allows a company to display small portions of a copyrighted work. Courts have never set a specific word count for the amount of text that can be copied under the doctrine.
However, many publishers and authors say that even if Google Book Search only displays small portions of a copyrighted book, the fair use doctrine doesn't permit Google to make digital copies of entire books without permission. ``In order to be able to provide that service, which greatly enhances Google's market status . . . Google has to create its own proprietary digital library of the full contents of all these books," said Allan Adler, vice president of legal and government affairs at the Association of American Publishers. In addition, said Adler, Google is providing digitized copies of the books to its partner libraries, without compensation to copyright holders. The association and five of its member publishers filed suit in federal court last year in an effort to stop Google from including copyrighted works in its book search service. An organization of authors has filed a similar suit.
Smith said publishers and authors should welcome a service that will help readers find out about books they might otherwise miss. ``We actually expand the market for publishers, for booksellers, by helping people find books," said Smith.
Peter Kosewski, spokesman for the Harvard University Library, said Google is helping Harvard accomplish its mission of distributing knowledge not only to its students and faculty, but to the entire world. ``I think the possible public good of having a great number of books online is extraordinary," Kosewski said.
Hiawatha Bray can be reached at email@example.com.