Book industry resists free internet access to text

Fearing that it will lose out financially, much of the book industry is resisting internet pioneers’ vision of putting the world’s entire store of published information online.

Some European libraries have portrayed the bid to digitise 500 years of books and newspapers as an imperialist plot, because the big players such as Google are based in the United States.

But other libraries have signed accords with Google. Most readers and internet users who have used services like Google Book Search have been delighted at how it helps track down useful books.

Digitising, and whether or not it is a threat to ”book culture”, will be an issue looming over the October 10 to 14 Frankfurt Book Fair.

Google Book Search does not disclose how big it has grown, but reports indicate it is currently digitising 3 000 books daily, which would mean one million volumes annually. The search-engine company indexes the entire text of the books.

The book industry does not criticise Google for making copies of old books where the copyright has expired.

It does object where the books are still protected today by copyright: the book industry says that it has the exclusive rights to use such books for commercial purposes. So far the industry has not managed to stop Google in the courts.

Google Book Search, which borrows the books from US, European and Asian libraries to scan, says it will only display ”snippets” — three or four lines at a time — from most 20th century books and will remove individual books from its index if a copyright owner complains.

Supporters say Google cannot proceed any other way, since many copyright owners are dead, no longer trading or practically untraceable. But publishers accuse Google of ”stealing” the books whenever it copies the content into its huge servers.

Richard Charkin, chief executive of New York publisher Macmillan, expressed the ”stealing” claim with a prank at the Book Expo America trade show in June: he took away a laptop belonging to Google and used it at a nearby table for about an hour.

”The owner of the computer had not specifically told us not to steal it,” he explained in sarcastic imitation of Google’s view.

Ruediger Wischenbart, a German commentator, sees Charkin’s humour as a sign that the publishing industry may at last be lightening up, and would be open to new rules to accommodate internet search.

Amazon, the US-based online bookseller, has its own system to index the words inside books, but only employs it when publishers explicitly opt in.

Smaller publishers have submitted their complete text whereas most large publishers have boycotted the Amazon ”Search Inside” feature.

Top publishers Random House and Harper Collins prefer to put large chunks of their books online on their own websites.

MPS, a New Delhi software house owned by Charkin’s company, is helping publishers to create their own ”anti-Google” databases, and says on its website: ”Don’t let other internet players replace publishers as the content gatekeepers.”

A Macmillan site selling e-books at roughly the same price as print books uses the MPS software, as does a book-search engine, the VTO, run by the German publishers’ and booksellers’ federation.

Work began in 2005 on the VTO project, which stands for Volltextsuche Online (full-text search online). The VTO is set to be unveiled as a working system with a stock of 7 000 in-print books at the Frankfurt Book Fair.

VTO is now an offshoot of Germany’s books-in-print database and appears mainly intended as a service for German bookstores, which will be able to include VTO as a feature on their websites to help shoppers find books to buy.

”Theft” of the books’ content is to be blocked, though critics managed as late as early September to crack VTO’s security features and obtain complete texts. Executives admit that the project has met unforeseen delays.

Publishers’ attempts to shut out the ”other internet players” are also being resisted by people who say the public should have ”open access” to taxpayer-funded scholarly and scientific research.

The open-access movement points out that academics, who type and illustrate their own work, might just as well put their articles on the internet as publish them in expensive scientific journals.

The Public Library of Science (PLoS) is a non-profit, open-access scientific-publishing project in the United States. Its growing stable of free journals is mainly funded by charging the authors a publication fee, usually refunded by their universities.

In Germany, copyright legislation is expected to come into force at the end of this year granting publishers the online rights to pre-1995 work. Before that time, online publication was undreamed of and rights to it were not mentioned in contracts.

Klaus Graf, an open-access advocate in Germany, is encouraging academics to use a one-year opt-out period to claim those online rights to their pre-1995 work and put the papers on the internet.

The prospect of scientists publishing on the internet instead of in paper journals has prompted academic publishers such as Springer to offer authors an open-access option, if they are willing to pay. Even more worrying, from a publisher’s perspective, is the prospect of expensive college textbooks being replaced by e-books that would be free to students. A British government agency, JISC, announced in September a nationwide trial with 26 books issued free.

Downloadable books can be read either on an ordinary laptop or on a reader device.

The New York Times has reported that Amazon is to launch in October an e-book reader brand-named the Kindle and priced above $400. The most likely venue: the Frankfurt Book Fair. Sony introduced a similar, $300 product last year. ‒ Sapa-DPA

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