US Internet giant Yahoo! Inc. unveiled plans to take on its arch-rival Google by launching an ambitious digital library that will make the full text of millions of books available online.
The move came after Google last December unveiled similar plans to set up a digital library but later suspended the scheme amid fierce opposition from publishers and traditional libraries worried about copyright infringement.
California-based Yahoo! said it had teamed up with Adobe Systems Inc., the European Archive, HP Labs, the British National Archives, O'Reilly Media Inc., Prelinger Archives and the Universities of California and Toronto to form the Open Content Alliance (OCA).
In a bid to stave off the outcry sparked by Google's troubled plans, Yahoo! stressed that the virtual library would focus on "providing open access to content while respecting the rights of copyright holders."
"The OCA will provide a wide range of material including cultural, historical and technological digitized print and multimedia content from libraries, archives and publishers," Yahoo!'s vice president of search content David Mandelbrot told AFP.
Initially, around 18,000 works in the University of California's "canon collection" of American literature, including the works of Mark Twain, Henry James and Edgar Allen Poe will be made available online, he said.
"To kickstart this effort, Yahoo! is going to digitize the American canon collection with the first works coming online before the end of this year and we expect to have the entire collection digitized by the end of 2006," Mandelbrot said.
"We are hoping that millions of works will ultimately be made available and that the OCA will become a more robust version of any traditional library," Mandelbrot told AFP.
The move allows Yahoo to avoid copyright battles similar to those weathered by Google because the "cannon collection" works are public domain as they were published before the enactment of a 1923 US copyright law.
But Yahoo! is also appealing to publishers, libraries, archives and other institutions to "opt in" to its scheme and allow their works to be published online, enhancing the OCA collection.
"The only content that will be made available is content that is in the public domain or content for which we have received the express consent from the copyright holder to make it available," Mandelbrot said.
"That way, of course we don't run into copyright challenges," he said.
Yahoo's approach to copyright issues differs fundamentally from that of Google, which requires copyright holders who do not want their works to be made available online to specifically opt out of Google's library program.
Last month, a coalition led by the US Authors Guild sued Google for allegedly violating copyrights because, even though only a few pages of text are displayed at a time, an entire book must be digitized to make it searchable.
In August, Google suspended until November 1 its plan to scan copyrighted books in order to give authors and other copyright holders the opportunity to opt out of the programme.
The outcome of the lawsuit against Google could define the future of online libraries as fast-moving technological advances pose new problems to traditional media such as publishing.