Tony Sanfilippo is of two minds when it comes to Google's ambitious program to scan millions of books and make their text fully searchable...

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NEW YORK — Tony Sanfilippo is of two minds when it comes to Google’s ambitious program to scan millions of books and make their text fully searchable on the Internet.

On the one hand, Sanfilippo credits the program for boosting sales of obscure titles at Penn State University Press, where he works. On the other, he’s worried that Google’s plans to create digital copies of books obtained directly from libraries could hurt his industry’s long-term revenues.

With Google’s book-scanning program set to resume in earnest this fall, copyright laws that long preceded the Internet face a digital-age test.

The outcome could determine how easy it will be for Internet users to benefit from knowledge now mostly locked up in library books, many of them out of print.

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“More and more people are expecting access, and they are making do with what they can get easy access to,” said Brewster Kahle, co-founder of the Internet Archive, which runs smaller book-scanning projects, mostly for out-of-copyright works. “Let’s make it so that they find great works rather than whatever just happens to be on the Net.”

Limits on project

To prevent the wholesale file-sharing plaguing the entertainment industry, Google has set some limits in its library project: Users won’t be able to easily print materials or read more than small portions of copyright works online.

Google also says it will send readers hungry for more to booksellers and libraries.

But many publishers are wary.

To endorse Google’s library initiative is to say “it’s OK to break into my house because you’re going to clean my kitchen,” said Sally Morris, chief executive of the U.K.-based Association of Learned and Professional Society Publishers. “Just because you do something that’s not harmful or [is] beneficial doesn’t make it legal.”

Morris and other publishers believe Google must get their permission first, as it has under the Print Publisher Program it launched in October 2004, two months before announcing the library initiative.

Under the publishers’ program, Google has deals with most major U.S. and U.K. publishers. It scans titles they submit, displays digital images of selected pages triggered by search queries and gives publishers a cut of revenues from accompanying ad displays.

But publishers aren’t submitting all their titles, and many that Google wants to scan are out of print and belong to no publisher at all.

Jim Gerber, Google’s director of content partnerships, says the company would get no more than 15 percent of all books published if it relied solely on publisher submissions.

That’s why it has turned to libraries.

Under the Print Library Project, Google is scanning millions of copyright books from libraries at Harvard, Michigan and Stanford, along with out-of-copyright materials there and at two other libraries.

Google has unilaterally set this rule: Publishers can tell it which books not to scan at all, similar to how Web site owners can request to be left out of search-engine indexes.

In August, the company halted the scanning of copyright books until Nov. 1, saying it wanted to give publishers time to compile their lists.

Richard Hull, executive director of the Text and Academic Authors Association, called Google’s approach backward. Publishers shouldn’t have to bear the burden of record-keeping, agreed Sanfilippo, the Penn State press’s marketing and sales director.

“We’re not aware of everything we’ve published,” Sanfilippo said. “Back in the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s, there were no electronic files for those books.”

Google, which wouldn’t say how many books it has scanned so far, says it believes its initiative is protected under the “fair use” provisions of copyright law.

Gerber argues that the initiative will “stimulate more people to contribute to the arts and the sciences by making these books more findable.”

Washington lawyer Jonathan Band says Google’s case is strong, given the limits on display — a few sentences at a time for works scanned from libraries, with technology making it difficult to recreate even a single page.

“I don’t see how making a few snippets of a work available to a user could have any negative impact on the market,” said Band.

Under Google’s strictures, readers can see just five pages at a time of publisher-submitted titles — and no more than 20 percent of an entire book through multiple searches. For books in the public domain, they can read the entire book online.

Not all publishers are opposed.

“For a typical author, obscurity is a far greater threat than piracy,” said Tim O’Reilly, chief executive of O’Reilly Media and an adviser to Google’s project. “Google is offering publishers an amazing opportunity for people to discover their content.”

James Hilton, associate provost and interim librarian at the University of Michigan, said his school is contributing 7 million volumes over six years because one day, materials that aren’t searchable online simply won’t get read.

“That doesn’t mean it’s going to be read online, but it’s not going to be found if it’s not online,” he said.

Much of the objections appear to stem from fears of setting a precedent that could do future harm to publishing.

“If Google is seen as being permitted to do this without any response, then probably others will do it,” said Allan Adler, a vice president at the Association of American Publishers. “You would have a proliferation of databases of complete copies of these copyrighted works.”

Talk of lawsuit

Publishers won’t rule out a lawsuit against Google.

The technology juggernaut, whose name is synonymous with online search, isn’t just shaking up book publishing.

Google has a separate project to archive television programs but has so far received limited permissions.

The company also faces lawsuits over facilitating access to news resources and porn images online.

Jonathan Zittrain, an Internet legal scholar affiliated with Oxford and Harvard universities, says the book-scanning dispute comes down to balancing commercial and social benefits.

“From the point of view of the publishers, you can’t blame them for playing their role, which is to maximize sales,” he said.

“But if fair use wasn’t found, [Google] would never be able to do the mass importation of books required to make a database that is socially useful,” Zittrain said.