A lawyer for Microsoft was among the witnesses at a U.S. District Court hearing in New York City yesterday on rival Google's project to scan millions of books and monetize them for Google online.
Judge Denny Chin was holding a "fairness hearing" on whether to approve a $125 million settlement between Google and various authors and publishers whose works would be scanned. Under the settlement, Google would be able to scan out-of-print books whose writers' could not be located and the works of other authors who declined to opt-out of the agreement after learning about it, according to an Associated Press story.
Among those lined up to oppose the deal was Microsoft legal counsel Thomas Rubin who testified that the settlement would give Google an unfair advantage in the marketplace and "was structured to solidify Google's dominance," the AP reported.
Of course, one of the reasons Google may have such an advantage is that Microsoft gave up on a similar project almost two years ago. Microsoft launched its Windows Live Book Search scanning project in October 2006, partnering with Kirtas Technologies, a maker of high-speed scanners and related software.
While starting the project in part to compete with Google, Microsoft sought to avoid copyright infringement issues by limiting itself to books whose copyright had lapsed, putting them in the public domain. Microsoft later added a Live Search Academic project focused on scholarly literature.
Besides his courtoom testimony, Rubin took another shot at Google's project three years ago in a 2007 address to the Association of American Publishers.
"Google takes the position that everything may be freely copied unless the copyright owner notifies Google and tells it to stop. Microsoft and most other companies, by contrast, take the position that they should get the copyright owner’s consent before they copy. The [U.S.] Copyright Act, in our view, supports this approach. It’s hard to see any justification for exempting Google from its requirements," Rubin said.
By the spring of 2008, though, Microsoft realized its approach wasn't working. It turned off the scanners and abandoned Live Book Search and Live Search Academic because it was unable to find a "sustainable business model" for the ventures.
"We have learned a tremendous amount from our experience and believe this decision, while a hard one, can serve as a catalyst for more sustainable strategies," said Satya Nadella, Microsoft's senior vice president for search, portal and advertising, in a May 23, 2008 blog posting.
By then, Microsoft had digitized 750,000 books and indexed 80 million journal articles, Nadella wrote.
Microsoft's speaking out against Google's project now strikes me as sour grapes if they tried and failed to monetize their efforts and Google seems to have found a way to make it work.
Robert Mullins is a freelance journalist based in San Francisco. He has been writing about technology from Silicon Valley for more than a decade. He has covered such beats as network security, servers, storage, software development, telecommunications and, of course, Microsoft, for a variety of publications, most notably the IDG News Service and Network World.