In a move with major significance for the worlds of academic research and publishing, the University of California is in talks to join Google's controversial project to digitize great libraries and offer books online.
Google is keen to have access to UC's 34 million volumes from 100 libraries on 10 campuses, which is described as collectively the largest academic research library in the world. UC wants to delve more deeply into the Internet revolution with a deep-pockets partner like Google paying the costs of scanning books.
UC President Robert C. Dynes and top UC librarians are negotiating a contract to follow six other prestigious library systems, including Harvard's and Stanford's, which already allow Google Inc. to scan and post on the Internet at least summary references to books.
Older volumes in the public domain, generally those published before 1923, can be put on line in full, but debate and litigation surround how much material can be used from books that are still protected by copyright.
Daniel Greenstein, UC's associate vice provost for scholarly information, said that joining the Google Books Library Project -- with its ability to search for terms inside texts, not only in catalog listings -- would help "create access like we've never had before to our cultural heritage and scholarly memory. It's a whole new paradigm."
In an interview Tuesday, Greenstein said that such digitizing offers protection for writings that might be lost in natural disasters like Hurricane Katrina and earthquakes. "It's the kind of stewardship that is absolutely vital to us and the community in general," said Greenstein, who oversees digital projects for UC libraries.
A UC deal with Google could be announced within a month, officials said. However, the arrangement first faces close scrutiny from the UC regents and the publishing world for potential copyright issues and concerns that UC might lose out on future revenue.
Last year, a group of U.S. publishers and the Authors Guild filed suits in federal court in New York against Google, contending that scanning copyrighted books without permission is copyright infringement, even if the books are not posted online or only tiny excerpts are shown.
Allan Adler, vice president of legal and government affairs for the Assn. of American Publishers, which is backing one of the lawsuits, said he understood why the search engine giant would want to sign up UC's enormous libraries. "It would be a significant addition with the sheer volume of the materials involved," he said.
Google's university partners are not defendants in the suits and UC probably would not be either, Adler said. "But on the other hand, it is rather curious that the University of California would announce this knowing the project is under a cloud of litigation at the moment," he said.
Under agreements with libraries, Google makes two copies of books, keeps one and gives one to the campuses. To avoid trouble, some of the libraries now allow scanning of only public domain books. But the University of Michigan and Google have said they do not need permission to allow a few sentences from copyrighted works online; such "fair use" quotation, they said, can help authors by boosting sales.
UC probably would follow the Michigan model in scanning works both in and out of copyright, Greenstein said. "This is not about breaking the law or stealing material," he said, stressing that university attorneys have approved the idea.
Megan Lamb, a Google spokeswoman, said the Mountain View, Calif.-based company now works with four universities in the United States and England -- Stanford, Harvard, Michigan and Oxford -- along with the New York Public Library and, in a pilot stage, the Library of Congress. The Google Book Search (http://books.google.com) also includes partnerships with some publishers that usually allow several pages of books to be shown.
"We are very interested in exploring additional partnerships to make the world of books searchable online," Lamb said. But she said the firm would not comment on the UC negotiations at this point.
UC last year joined another online book scanning and posting project as part of the Open Content Alliance (www.opencontentalliance.org). That project, which is still in an early stage, has the backing of Yahoo Inc. and Microsoft and includes other universities and archives in the United States, Canada and Europe. It is starting only with books in the public domain.
Greenstein said UC would keep its membership in that alliance if it also joined the Google initiative. But he and other experts said Google offers much more capacity and resources for scanning. Google wants to digitize several million books in UC's holdings over the next six years or so, a scale the Alliance could not afford, he said.