SEATTLE - Microsoft Corp. is diving into the business of offering online searches of books and other writings, and says its approach aims to avoid the legal tussles met by rival Google Inc.
The Redmond-based software giant said Tuesday that it will sidestep hot-button copyright issues for now by initially focusing mainly on books, academic materials and other publications that are in the public domain.
Microsoft plans to initially work with an industry organization called the Open Content Alliance to let users search about 150,000 pieces of published material. A test version of the product is promised for next year.
The alliance, whose participants also include top Internet portal Yahoo Inc., is working to make books and other offline content available online without raising the ire of publishers and authors.
Danielle Tiedt, a general manager of search content acquisition with Microsoft's MSN online unit, said the company also is working with publishers and libraries on ways to eventually make more copyright material available for online searches.
She said Microsoft is looking at several options, including models where users would be charged to access the content.
Microsoft said it has no plans right now to have targeted ads located in the search results, but the company cautioned that it was still working out the details of its business model.
"I think about the 150,000 books as a test," Tiedt said.
Rival Google has taken a markedly different approach, with plans to index millions of copyright books from three major university libraries - Harvard, Stanford and Michigan - unless the copyright holder notifies the company which volumes should be excluded.
The Association of American Publishers, representing five publishers, and The Authors Guild, which includes about 8,000 writers, have both sued the search engine giant over the plans.
Google has defended the effort as necessary to its goal of helping people find information - and insists that its scanning effort is protected under fair use law because of restrictions placed on how much of any single book could be read.
Responding to Microsoft's plans to offer its own book search, Google said in a statement that it "welcomes efforts to make information accessible to the world."
Tiedt said Microsoft is coming at book search from a different angle in part because the software maker itself is so often the target of copyright infringement. Pirated versions of Microsoft's Windows operating system are widely available in developing countries for only a few dollars.
Microsoft's approach has the potential to backfire, however, if Google ends up having more content available or begins offering ways to search content for free while Microsoft pursues a model that requires people to pay for it.
Microsoft acknowledges it is far behind Google.
Tiedt said she expects it will take years - and require a substantial investment - to solidify the MSN product, working out all the complex issues around searching through books and other materials online.
"This is not a money-maker for the company," Tiedt said. "This is very much a strategic bet for search overall."
The effort marks Microsoft's latest effort to play catch-up with Google on various search technologies ranging from basic Internet search to localized queries.
But Google remains by the search leader by far, accounting for 45.1 percent of all U.S. Internet searches in September, according to Nielsen/Net Ratings. Microsoft's MSN Search ranked third, accounting for 11.7 percent of U.S. searches during the same period.