Another Google Gaffe?

I'm a bit conflicted this morning.

Yesterday I received a press release from The Authors Guild, of which I am a member, announcing it has filed suit against Google (Nasdaq: GOOG  ) for what it calls "massive copyright infringement." Three members of the Guild are the actual plaintiffs: Herbert Mitgang, a former New York Times editorial writer; Betty Miles, a noted children's author; and Daniel Hoffman, a former Poet Laureate of the United States.

At the center of the dispute is the Google Print for Libraries project, which began in December. The idea is to digitally scan and make available for search the content of millions of books housed in major university libraries, including Harvard, Stanford, Oxford, and Michigan. The New York Public Library has also been a participant.

It's not clear how many texts have been scanned to date, but it's likely to be in the tens of thousands, including works still under copyright protection. And that's what has the Guild up in arms. It claims that in striking its deals with libraries, Google never sought the permission of individual authors.

It gets confusing because there are two types of Google Print programs: Google Print for Libraries, and Google Print for Publishers. In the latter, publishers such as Simon & Schuster -- which has published The Motley Fool's series of books -- can have their texts listed in Google searches for free. (Simon & Schuster is a division of Viacom (NYSE: VIA  ) and participates in Google Print for Publishers.) But there seems to be a question as to whether participating in Google Print for Publishers grants Google the right to scan copyrighted works if those works are part of a library collection. Obviously, the Authors Guild doesn't think so.

And therein lies my conflict: As a member of the Guild and a writer, I'm completely in favor of defending the intellectual property rights of my fellow members. Yet I also depend on the richness of Google so much that I hate to see anything impede the process of digitizing useful texts.

There's unlikely to be a clear winner in this -- least of all investors. After stubbing its toe with Gmail, Google should have known it would have to tread carefully in the realm of copyright law. To its credit, the technology does appear very well designed. But intellectual property is still a tricky, relationship-driven business. Managing it can be tough. Just ask Apple (Nasdaq: AAPL  ) -- iTunes wouldn't be the success it has become without some clever bargaining with the music industry and hundreds of musicians. Are writers really any different? Not in my, um, book.

I don't relish changing positions, but this latest debacle convinces me that my dueling opponent, Rich Smith, was right: Google has a big mission in organizing the world's information, and it takes more than good technology to do that. Till the company proves it understands this, it doesn't deserve your hard-earned investing dollars.

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Fool contributor Tim Beyers wishes he had more work to copyright. Sigh. Tim didn't own shares in any of the companies mentioned in this story at the time of publication. You can find out what's in his portfolio by checking Tim's Fool profile here. The Motley Fool has an ironclad disclosure policy.


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