German publishers, keen to defend their copyrights as Internet search engines seek to put the world's literature online, aim to set up their own web-based database allowing readers to browse, borrow or buy books.
Search engine Google has angered publishers with proposals to scan copyrighted works without permission to make them searchable online. Critics fear the digital repository of books it would build up would give it a monopoly on culture.
The German association of book publishers is planning to build a network by next year that will allow the full texts of their books to be searched online by search engines but will not hand the texts over to these companies.
Google currently has agreements with publishers whereby it scans their books to allow readers to search the full texts online. The search results display only limited extracts.
In the longer term, the German association wants to build its own search engine to offer services which could rival those offered by Google, Yahoo or Lycos, and even offer readers the chance to borrow books online.
"We don't want Google to hold the texts in its servers; we want the publishers to keep them," Matthias Ulmer, who is leading the project, told Reuters in an interview at this week's Frankfurt Book Fair.
Ulmer believes the German project will create the first nationwide network of its kind.
In the German model, publishers would scan their books into their own servers. The publishers' association would build a network that would allow Google or other companies to search those servers without being able to see their full content.
Ulmer said the association was talking to various search engines and he was confident of reaching a deal with Google.
Ulmer said publishers should learn lessons from the music industry, where revenues have plunged in recent years, partly due to people downloading music from the Internet for free. "We mustn't make the same mistake and live in the past," he said.
But, he said, it was hard to convince publishers of the importance of the plan because many were not interested in online projects. "They like the feel, the smell, of books and paper," he said.
However, he said he already had around 100 publishers on board for his project, the initial stage of which should be up and running by April, including around half of the top 100 publishing houses which make up the vast majority of book sales.
He estimated it would cost each publisher around 3,000 euros per year for the server, plus 10 euros for each title in its backlist.
Ulmer admitted there would always be a danger of hackers accessing whole books online, but said the problem of copyright was centuries old, and called for a legal framework to redress any fallout from copyright breaches.
"We need a constitution, we need rules, but we don't need a wall," he said. "Even Goethe got angry that people copied his books," he added.