Microsoft's MSN division plans to launch a book-search service next year that will allow users to search through and read printed publications...

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Microsoft’s MSN division plans to launch a book-search service next year that will allow users to search through and read printed publications online, following similar announcements made by rivals Yahoo! and Google.

But instead of forging its own path in the book-digitizing business — a wilderness of tricky copyright laws and technical challenges — MSN is joining a group already at work in the area.

The division will align with the Open Content Alliance, which is backed by Yahoo! and aims to initially focus on scanning and digitizing classic books not bound by copyright restrictions.

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The partnership is a further sign of a philosophy within MSN that, in certain areas at least, there’s no point in going it alone. The division is increasingly moving to partner with rivals, such as linking its instant-messaging platform with Yahoo!’s or exploring advertising opportunities with America Online.

In the case of the book-search project, MSN had no interest in manually scanning tens of thousands of books, said Danielle Tiedt, a general manager at MSN.

“I wanted to not invest our resources in the digitization and the scanning, because that’s not our core competency,” she said. “I wanted to invest all our efforts in the software on top.”

Tiedt said MSN and Yahoo! will foot the bill for the scanning, which costs about 10 cents a page, but the work will be done by The Internet Archive, a San Francisco nonprofit group. MSN and Yahoo! will index the digitized books, make them searchable and host the content on servers.

Yahoo! has agreed to scan 18,000 books, and MSN has committed to scanning 150,000, Tiedt added. MSN hasn’t specified which books it will choose to digitize for its service, which is expected in the first half of next year.

Three major book-scanning projects, including the Open Content Alliance’s, are under way. Google has a similar undertaking, the Google Library, and indexes books for a feature that lets users peek at some pages before buying.

Steve Kessel, Amazon’s vice president of digital media, compared the “Search Inside” feature to Baskin-Robbins offering ice-cream samples to customers before a purchase. The program is voluntary for publishers, Kessel said, and the books that participate see a 7 to 9 percent lift in sales.

The Authors Guild is suing Google over the Google Library project, claiming the company is violating copyright law by scanning in books without first receiving permission. Google says it only shows snippets of text, and that copyright holders can exclude their books from the program.

MSN and Yahoo! said they will get permission before offering copyrighted works to users.

Paul Aiken, president of the Authors Guild, said copyright holders shouldn’t have to bear the burden of opting out of a system. He said he has no problems with the Open Content Alliance’s approach.

“It looks like they’re doing it the right way,” he said.

Kim Peterson: 206-464-2360 or