The Authors Guild and three writers have filed a class action suit against Google over the Google Print programme.

The lawsuit charges Google with massive copyright infringement.

Google Print is a beta project that allows Internet users to search for content in books. Google is in the process of scanning books from several libraries into the searchable database.

The Authors Guild, a society of published writers representing over 8,000 US authors, charges that Google has not sought the approval of authors to include their works in the program.

Copyright approval by default ‘unacceptable’

Google does allow copyright holders to exclude their books from the program. However, traditionally, content users must have affirmative authorization from a copyright owner to use the copyrighted material, said Terence Ross, a partner and copyright law specialist at Gibson, Dunn and Crutcher, a Washington, DC, law office.

"Merely saying that if we don't hear from you we assume it's okay has never been accepted by any court and I doubt it would ever be accepted," he said.

Google said in a statement responding to the lawsuit that its activities are consistent with the fair use doctrine under US copyright law and the principles underlying copyright law. Fair use is a concept within US copyright law that allows copyright material to be used in limited circumstances, such as quoting parts of a novel for a book review, without the permission of the author.

When users search the Google Print database, they find a "brief snippet of text where their search term appears," not the entire text, Google explained in the statement.

Still, Google is copying entire works into its database. "It's not what's delivered to the PC user that's the copyright issue, it's the fact that they have copied the entire work in the first place," said Ross. "I don't see fair use."

Boost to book-buying?

Google also points to a paper issued by Jonathan Band, an intellectual property lawyer, who cites potentially relevant cases. In one, a company was allowed to make copies of images on Web sites and offer them in smaller, lower quality form because such a format doesn't alleviate the need for the higher-quality originals.

Similarly, rather than erode the potential for authors to sell books, Google argues the program will encourage sales. "This ability to introduce millions of users to millions of titles can only expand the market for authors' books, which is precisely what copyright law is intended to foster," the statement said.

Google is working with University of Michigan, Harvard University, Stanford University, The New York Public Library and Oxford University to scan all or part of their books into the Google Print database.

The lawsuit was filed in a New York federal court. The three writers named in the suit in addition to the Authors Guild are Herbert Mitgang, a former New York Times writer and book author, Betty Miles, a children's book author and Daniel Hoffman, a poet and author.