A group of academic publishers is challenging Google Inc.'s plan to scan millions of library books into its Internet search engine index, highlighting fears that the ambitious project will violate copyrights and stifle future sales.
In a letter scheduled delivered to Google on Monday, the Association of American University Presses described the online search engine's library project as a troubling financial threat to its membership -- 125 nonprofit publishers of academic journals and scholarly books.
The plan "appears to involve systematic infringement of copyright on a massive scale," wrote Peter Givler, the executive director for the New York-based trade group.
The association asked Google to respond to a list of 16 questions seeking more information about how the company plans to protect copyrights.
Two unnamed publishers already asked Google to withhold its copyrighted material from the scanners, but the company hasn't complied with the requests, Givler wrote.
Google, based in Mountain View, Calif., did not immediately return phone and e-mail messages left Monday.
The association of nonprofit publishers is upset because Google has indicated it will scan copyright-protected books from three university libraries -- Harvard, Michigan and Stanford.
Those three universities also operate publishing arms represented by the group complaining about Google's 5-month-old 'Libraries for Print' project. That means the chances of the association suing Google are "extremely remote," Givler said in an interview Monday.
Still, Givler said the association is very worried about Google's scanning project.
"The more we talked about it with our lawyers, the more questions bubbled up," he said. "And so far Google hasn't provided us with any good answers."
Google also is scanning books stored in the New York Public Library and Oxford in England, but those two libraries so far are only providing Google with 'public domain works -- material no longer protected by copyrights.
Federal law considers the free distribution of some copyrighted material to be permissible 'fair use.' The company has told the nonprofit publishers that its library program meets this criteria.
Some for-profit publishers also are taking a closer look at Google's library-scanning project.
"We are exploring issues and opportunities with Google, including the potential impact of this program on our authors, our customers and our business," said John Wiley & Sons Inc. spokeswoman Susan Spilka.
Copyright concerns aren't the only issue casting a cloud over Google's library-scanning project. The project also has drawn criticism in Europe for placing too much emphasis on material from the United States.
One of Google's most popular features -- a section that compiles news stories posted on thousands of Web sites -- already has triggered claims of copyright infringement. Agence France-Presse, a French news agency, is suing for damages of at least $17.5 million, alleging 'Google News' is illegally capitalising on its copyrighted material.
The latest complaints about Google are being driven by university-backed publishers who fear there will be little reason to buy their books if Google succeeds in its effort to create a virtual reading room.
The university presses depend on books sales and other licensing agreements for most of their revenue, making copyright protections essential to their survival.
Google has turned its search engine into a moneymaking machine, generating a $369 million profit during the first three months of this year alone. The company is counting on its library scanning project to attract even more visitors to its site so it can display more ads and potentially boost its earnings even more.
Investors already adore Google. The company's shares surged $13.84, or 5.7 per cent, to close Monday at $255.45 on the Nasdaq Stock Market.
Earlier in the session, the shares traded as high as $258.10 -- a new peak since the company went public nine months ago at $85.