Search engine pioneer Google (NASDAQ:GOOG) has been innovative, to say the least, when it comes to the services it has developed or shaped for its own use. Even when competitors like Yahoo! (NASDAQ:YHOO) and IAC/Interactive's (NASDAQ:IACI) AskJeeves beat Google to the game, it has still managed to improve upon the original.

For example, online search, the company's forte, was around long before the Double-O made its way to the scene, but the plain interface just made it so darn easy to use. Paid search was pioneered by (NASDAQ:FWHT) and Yahoo!'s Overture; it's what Google does with a given concept that puts its offering ahead of its competitors'.

Yet Google's latest search for the next frontier takes it to a realm that has me torn in my admiration. Google Print for Libraries is a sweeping, awe-inspiring effort to digitize the entire library collections of Harvard, Stanford, and Oxford universities. Think of the possibilities: Tens of thousands of works of literature would be completely searchable on the Internet. Milton and Chaucer. Friedman and von Hayek. Lewis Carroll and J.R.R. Tolkien. Tom and David Gardner. The works that you could search and read is truly mind boggling.

Which brings us to the concerns that several organizations have voiced: As awesome and ambitious as the plan is, many works are still copyrighted and legally can't be copied in such a wholesale manner.

Google has countered that its use of these texts is permissible under "fair use" laws and that it has further instituted protections to prevent copyrighted materials from being viewed. For example, a search might produce bibliographic information only or perhaps a "snippet" of text rather than the entire book. The search company would also give publishers an opportunity to opt out and not have their texts be searchable.

According to the U.S. Copyright Office, reproducing copyrighted materials is permissible under the "fair use" doctrine if the work is going to be used for "criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching (including multiple copies for classroom use), scholarship, or research." Interestingly, while the doctrine goes on to offer additional exemptions for libraries, it includes the caveat that a digital reproduction of library books cannot be distributed or "made available to the public in that format outside the premises of the library or archives."

Certainly it would seem that Google's plan to make these books available on the Internet would violate the fair use doctrine. Also, giving publishers the chance to opt out after the fact still does not settle the issue of whether the copying of the text in the first place is a violation.

Don't get me wrong, I'd love to be able to have the entire text of The Motley Fool's Money After 40 available online alongside Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales or Dante's The Divine Comedy. It's just that the wholesale publication of works not in the public domain, even with the alleged copyright protections in place, opens a brave new world of violation, infringement, and even theft. A better option is Google's Print forpublishers initiative, which allows authors and publishers to upload the texts of books to Google's database and have them available to promote sales and generate ad revenues.

The Search Engine That Could may very well be ahead of competition, but it still needs to play by the rules.

Fool contributor Rich Duprey does not own any of the stocks mentioned in the article. The Fool has a disclosure policy.