Google seeks inroads into Asian libraries

It remains to be seen if the search giant can attract a partner in Asia, but at least one national library has expressed interest in its library program.

The Google Books Library Project may have won the support of prominent libraries in the United States and the United Kingdom, but it is not likely to make a splash in Asia--at least, not yet.

Google's library project is one of two programs under the Google Book Search, announced in 2004, which aims to allow users to search and view a limited number of pages from copyrighted books of authors, or even download entire books when they are out of copyright. The other partner program reaches out to publishers as a sales and marketing channel.

ZDNet Asia understands that at least one library in the Asia-Pacific region has expressed interest in partnering Google, but is concerned with "possible copyright issues".

In an e-mail interview, Singapore's National Library Board (NLB) CIO Raju BLN, confirmed that NLB has been "in discussion with Google on [the] digitization of books and its implications" after the Board learnt about the service in late-2004.

"We explored the possibility [of partnering Goggle] but would prefer to take a cautious approach due to the possible copyright issues," Raju explained. "As we do not own the copyrights of books, we must be cautious in undertaking this and strike a balance between providing easy access to digitized content and copyright issues."

He added that NLB is still in talks with Google, and that it is trying to facilitate "a discussion between our publisher associations and Google". However, he noted that there were "no concrete details" as to when this meeting might take place.

When contacted, Google did not confirm talks with Asian libraries but a spokesperson told ZDNet Asia that the company is "continually exploring opportunities to work with more libraries around the world".

"We explored the possibility but would prefer to take a cautious approach due to the possible copyright issues."
--Raju BLN
Singapore's National Library Board

According to the spokesperson, the Google Books Library Project is "proceeding well" with its current six library partners--University of California, University of Michigan; Harvard University, Oxford University; New York Public Library and Stanford University. A pilot project is also underway with the U.S. Library of Congress.

Google recently gathered some momentum in extending its footprints across Asia. The search company in May launched its publisher partner program in Japan. This was followed by a similar launch in China in June.

These initiatives, however, focused mainly on getting publishers from the two countries to join the program, the Google spokesperson said, adding that there is "no service yet for consumers".

Google's journey to make all books in the world searchable has been fraught with protests against copyright infringement by authors and publishers. The controversy had escalated to a point where Google said it would stop scanning copyright-protected books into its database for a period of three months.

In May 2005, the Association of American University Presses, which represents some 125 scholarly publishers such as universities and museums, sent a letter to Google expressing its concerns over what the group perceived to be a "broad-sweeping violation of the Copyright Act". This was followed by a subsequent lawsuit against Google by the New York-based Authors Guild last September.

Despite the obstacles, Google managed to pick up some momentum for its project when the latest inductee the University of California, hopped on board last month. This partnership marked the start of an 18-month project that will see Google scan millions of volumes of books in the UC library.

Stanley Lai, head of intellectual property and technology at Allen and Gledhill, noted that despite "all the pressure and litigation that's been brought upon Google, it has actually enjoyed some success". The lawyer was speaking at the Global Forum on IP, held in Singapore last month.

The tussles swirling around the Google Book Search are based on the notion of "fair use", Lai said. The basic premise of the project appears to rest on "a very broad interpretation of the doctrine of fair use", he added.

A possible resolution to this problem would be to consider the idea of a "digital library safe harbor", Lai suggested, where companies such as Google are entitled to create an "intermediate copy of full-text digital content". At the same time, they are required to set aside a portion of their advertising revenue toward an "insurance fund" to safeguard the interests of authors and publishers.