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Google woos Indian publishers

By Aresh Shirali in New Delhi
January 31, 2006 02:02 IST
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Google has turned on the charm at the book fair in Delhi. "Books are written to be discovered, and that's the challenge we're helping publishers solve with Google Book Search," gushes Gautam Anand, strategic partner development manager, Google Inc; "it's a great discovery tool."

And, get this: Hindi books are to be digitised too, as part of Google's brand mission to "organise all the world's information and make it universally accessible".

Several unconvinced publishers, however, are looking grimly at Google's grand effort to take its search tool beyond Internet pages to the printed word by scanning and digitising all the books in at least four mega-libraries: Harvard, Oxford, Stanford and NY Public Library.

The Association of American Publishers spies in this project an obvious violation of copyright law, and is suing Google for allegedly stealing intellectual property without specific "opt in" permission, book by book.

Digitising books is the online era's equivalent of library "indexing", responds Anand. This is not intellectual property theft. Moreover, if you "opt out", your book won't be put into computer memory. So there's no coercion.

Not good enough, say the Googlesceptics. D N Malhotra, former chairman of the Copyright Council of India, among them, is insistent that by law only "fair use" extracts may be taken without consent: just two-three snippets at most.

Indeed, that's all that will be available to Google searchers, assures Anand, apart from bibliographical details and net links. The idea, he says, is to help people look inside books (thousands already in the public domain, and thousands out of print) for relevant text, and then find ways to buy/access the whole volume. To his mind, it's a readership boost.

Several publishers agree. In fact, sensing opportunity in heightened book interest along the Internet's many pathways, dozens of big publishers have signed deals with Google for links to get traffic to their own sales sites.

Macmillan India's managing director, Rajiv Beri, sees digitisation as inevitable. "It will happen large scale," he says, ready to embrace the Internet. He is keen on Internet support tools, for example, as a way to enhance the value delivered by his books, especially in the education segment.

But still, misgivings persist. While Google may not exactly be dodging the law, its very possession of the material (and thus its capacity for damage) makes some publishers jittery.

Subroto Mozumdar, president, Pearson Education India, for example, sees it as a security issue. In favour of "opt in", he is not at all sure if Google's databases are as hacker-proof as he would like. The very act of book digitisation puts the publishing industry at risk, to his mind, regardless of Google's own intentions.

Needless to add, that is ironic in itself, given Google's much discussed corporate dictum, "Don't be evil", not to mention its own role in creating a "democratic" search algorithm that gives primacy to mass popularity as an all-powerful criterion of worthiness.

The good news for Google is that people are beginning to place "fair use" in the broad context of what's good for us all: openness. "More knowledge in the hands of more people is always better," says Sara Miller McCune, chairman and publisher, Sage Publications.

She looks forward to the digitisation project as a boon for research students, above all, and shrugs at the possibility of leakage. "Any technology can be used or abused - we learnt that with nuclear energy."

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Aresh Shirali in New Delhi
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