April 19, 2018

Microsoft Abandons Live Search Books/Academic Scan Plan

Microsoft last week announced that it will pull the plug on its book and scholarly article scan plans, Live Search Books and Live Search Academic, and that both sites will be taken down. “We recognize that this decision comes as disappointing news to our partners, the publishing and academic communities, and Live Search users,” reads a Microsoft blog post  from Satya Nadella, Microsoft senior VP search, portal and advertising. “We believe the next generation of search is about the development of an underlying, sustainable business model for the search engine, consumer, and content partner.” Nadella said that books digitized under the programs would now be included in MSN search results.

The announcement comes as book publishers will gather this week in Los Angeles for BookExpo America, the industry’s annual tradeshow. In a somewhat confusing message, Microsoft said it would continue to “reach out” to publishers and libraries, and would encourage libraries to “build on the platform” it has developed with its partners—even though that platform is evidently commercially unsustainable and would no longer be financially supported by the company. The company also said the libraries and institutions outfitted with Microsoft state-of-the-art Kirtas scanners for the program could keep the scanners. In a post on the Internet Archive site, Open Content Alliance (OCA) founder Brewster Kahle noted that “funding for the time being is secure,” but he acknowledged that “going forward” Microsoft’s investment will need to be replaced. “Let’s work together, quickly, to build on the existing momentum,” Kahle urged.

The OCA launched in 2005 with an initial investment from Microsoft, whose nascent book scanning program was praised by publishers for its policy only to scan books for which it had permission. Live Search Book launched in beta in late 2006 with books scanned by library partners at the University of California, the British Library, and the University of Toronto. Microsoft and the Columbia University Libraries announced a book scanning partnership in January of this year.

In his statement, Kahle diplomatically praised Microsoft’s involvement, saying that their participation has led to over 300,000 titles being “publicly available on the archive.org  site that would not otherwise be.” In addition, he praised Microsoft’s decision to release public domain books from any “contractual restrictions.” Kahle has been a vocal opponent of book scanning practices that make public domain books surface only within the search engines owned by the companies that scanned them, or that prohibit their wide use and reuse—with Google being the main target, given its dominant position in the book scanning realm.

In exiting the book scanning arena, Microsoft suggested the future of public domain books rests on libraries and publishers. “Based on our experience, we foresee that the best way for a search engine to make book content available will be by crawling content repositories created by book publishers and libraries.”

The big question, of course, is who will fund the repositories Microsoft hopes to one day crawl? Commercial competitor Google currently forbids rival search engines to crawl its scans. Kahle, meanwhile, has long advocated a “public works” approach to scanning public domain books. “At 10¢ a page, 300 pages in a book, it would price out at about $30 million, costs that could be spread out over many institutions,” Kahle told Library Journal in an interview last year. “We can do this.” That kind of large-scale public, institutional support has yet to materialize, however, suggesting the future of the public domain book content online is, at best, in uncertain hands.