Late last month, Amazon.com opened a whole new portal to the world of books. The cyberretailer's new "Search Inside the Book" feature makes the entire content of books available - free - to anyone with a high-speed internet connection and a credit card.
While the program has delighted many book lovers, it has sent chills down others' spines.
A few weeks ago, typing "pumpkin cheesecake" or "Cancún hotels" into the search box at an online bookstore would turn up only books with those keywords in their titles or subjects. Now, Web surfers can unearth, read, and even print recipes, travel tips, or anything else mentioned in the 120,000 books whose publishers have let Amazon make their texts fully searchable.
"It's allowing people to discover books they didn't know about," says Steve Kessel, vice president of Amazon's media group. The company won't release actual sales figures but says that the program has already boosted sales across all book categories.
Amazon reports that 190 publishers, including the industry's largest, had signed up by the October launch. Another 37 have since contacted Amazon to sign up.
Wired magazine calls the search engine "a powerful, even mind-boggling tool," and librarians, lawyers, and journalists have all marveled at its usefulness. Yet other observers are worried the search engine will make it easy to raid books for useful information without having to buy them.
"When we learned of the program, we thought that it would be impossible to read more than five consecutive pages from a book in the program," the Authors Guild said in a statement on its website. "It turns out that it's quite simple (though a bit inconvenient) to look at 100 or more consecutive pages from a single lengthy book. We've even printed out 108 consecutive pages from a bestselling book."
Books whose contents are useful in small chunks may be vulnerable to eroding sales: reference books, cookbooks, travel books, and college texts. Amazon declined to comment on their online security measures. But it has been widely reported that their site limits users to seeing 20 percent of a given book a month. Downloading text is impossible.
Within a week of the launch, Amazon quietly disabled the print function, at least for users of Internet Explorer, the dominant Web browser. At press time, users could still make bootleg printouts by using less common Web browsers, or, one page at a time, by hitting the "Print Screen" button.
But for most Web surfers, the added inconvenience will probably discourage bootlegging. "Disabling the print function greatly reduces the risk that 'Search Inside the Book' will erode sales," says Paul Aiken, executive director of the Authors Guild. "But something like this does send off alarms as to what the future may hold as far as book piracy is concerned."
Stephen Bainbridge, a law professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, put it more strongly on his blog professorbainbridge.com: "From my perspective, what Amazon is doing is no different than what Kazaa [the Internet file-sharing site] is doing to music. They are creating a way for university students with high-speed broadband connections to routinely evade copyright laws."
Like trademarks and patents, copyrights exist to ensure that creators have an economic incentive to keep on being creative. Yet it's always been the case that authors and publishers get no payment when a book is resold, shared, photocopied, or browsed in a bookstore.
"Online availability could eventually tip the balance, making additional uncompensated uses far outweigh the compensated uses," says Mr. Aiken. "Eventually, many authors would have to turn to other work."
The proliferation of online media has made the long-contentious topic of what constitutes a copyright violation and what is only a "fair use," excluded from copyright law, even more complicated. Groups like the National Writers Union clash frequently with publishers over who should own the right to put printed works online.
To make up for one type of uncompensated use, more than a dozen industrial nations pay authors a small fee every time their works are borrowed from public libraries. But no such program exists in the United States.
Even if online availability doesn't hurt book sales or authors' rights, some book lovers worry that Amazon's new search engine will retard the development of the next generation of book readers.
Jennifer Hasty, an anthropologist at Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma, Wash., says Amazon's program is a great tool for anyone who loves books.
"But people who don't love books will never develop a love for books if they can just raid a book online for a few nuggets of information," says Dr. Hasty. "Dismembering books online through a search engine - I don't know if that does a service to our culture."