In 1995 Bill Gates publicly remarked that Microsoft had been caught napping at the rise of the Internet. Over the next few years the company frantically played catch up — bundling its Internet Explorer browser with the Windows operating system, and snapping up popular web applications like Hotmail and so on.
Until about a few years ago Microsoft seemed to have made up for lost time but more recently Google seems to be doing better. It dominates the search market. Other moves by Google to further cement its place on the Internet have put it in direct competition with Microsoft — it now offers free software such as Google Docs & Spreadsheets. It’s a battle that can only heighten in the years to come.
Now, Microsoft has decided to hit Google where it hurts the most. Google’s controversial Book Search project has attracted a lot of criticism since it was first announced in December 2004. Under this project Google is in the process of scanning thousands of books from university libraries in order to create a searchable index. The Association of American Publishers contends that this violates the concept of fair use. Google has a clear business model — it benefits by placing targeted ads next to the pages displayed. And like the search engine giant does with YouTube, it pulls books off this web library after receiving specific complaints from publishers.
Microsoft has chosen to throw in its lot behind the Association of American publishers. It’s offering, Live Book Search, only displays books that are past their copyright protected period or that publishers expressly authorized. Live Books Search is a rather bland offering compared to Google’s Book Search simply because its collection lacks the depth that Google’s has.
Microsoft has chosen the right time to attack Google, which has faced a lot of heat in recent weeks for allowing users to upload copyrighted content on YouTube. Viacom’s decision to align itself with Joost has the potential to cause a major headache for Google.
In the case of its Book Search, if the courts rule against Google, it could lose this battle and be forced to take permission on a per book basis for individual publishers. If this happens, the publishing industry may well decide to go with Microsoft and refuse to deal with Google. Legal experts are divided and say that both sides have strong arguments.
Microsoft’s attack is mere posturing before the courts take a final stand on the issue. It will be interesting to see which side wins this one.