CHICAGO –At the most, there was maybe 10 feet separating executives from the worlds three leading Internet search engines as each shared the same stage here at an Internet search conference.
But as each exec spoke of their companys respective online book projects, they put on display the huge divide that separates Google Inc. from everybody else.
The issue involves how Google is going at its online book project alone, while rivals Microsoft Corp. and Yahoo Inc. are quilting together a group of technologists and book publishers in order to effect the same kinds of results.
Each tactic has its own positives and benefits. But by developing separate efforts, Google, Yahoo and Microsoft are creating a divide that threatens each companys laudable goal of putting all the worlds literature online for anyone to view at any time and from anywhere.
There are already signs emerging of the effects of the divide on universities—the ones donating their library collections, who are central to each effort. In effect, they are forced to choose sides.
For instance, the University of Illinois refuses to take part in Google Books out of copyright concerns. But it seems willing to work with Yahoo and Microsoft.
On the other hand, a bevy of higher educational institutions have nothing but good to say about the Google project and are eager to donate their collections.
Pennsylvania State Universitys publishing business is seeing extraordinary results from participation. Last month, its Web site was accessed 300,000 times, a huge boost due to its involvement with Google Books, said a university representative.
Why is Google going alone? Tom Turvey, who heads Googles print partnership program, inferred here that the answer is simple: Its the way Google usually does things. In collaborative efforts, "you spend so much time figuring out the redundancy, at Google, we just do it," he said.
As a result, Google believes it is building a book search engine that, arguably, is outdoing its rivals when measuring the volume of tomes being made available online.
But to do so, say authors and publishers, the search engine is trampling over copyright laws.
The legal issue is over how a certain percentage of the books Google is scanning are still subject to copyright laws, but also out of print, therefore in a kind of legal gray area. Regardless, Google is in the midst of scanning entire libraries of books, in copyright or not, that are being made available by five university partners.
While it halted the project for three months earlier this year to sort out some of the controversy, the hiatus has done little to change Googles plan for all the books, all the time.
"Very few authors, a very small percentage, have decided to pull their books," Turvey said.
But controversy has dogged Google Books since its inception. So far, Google faces two copyright infringement lawsuits, one each filed by trade groups representing authors and book publishers. Google has denied any wrongdoing and has vowed to fight the lawsuits.
Meanwhile, Googles major competitors Yahoo and Microsoft are creating an arguably more legal online book alternative, but also with less choice for consumers.
Both companies are now members of an alliance of book publishers, technology companies and publishers known as the Open Content Alliance. Its tactic is to seek permission from the authors or publishers first, then scan the books into their databases so they can be searched for online.
The group so far has avoided any copyright controversy with its books project and is likely to skirt the issue entirely. But, it faces a future in which its listings will be less extensive than Googles.
Why did Yahoo create the OCA and later convince Microsoft to join? Theres safety in numbers.
"To do it alone is just too difficult," said Thiru Anandanpillai, of Microsofts MSN Search division.
For now, Google is the only major search engine to launch a book search. Books are also starting to show up in more general search results. Yahoo says its feature is set to launch soon.