The New York Times Magazine ran a spectacular cover story yesterday discussing the future of books in the digital age. This was not at heart a debate over the fate of paper and the loss of tradition, but rather a discussion of technology, its impact on culture and the (potential) fullfilment of the human dream of having all the knowledge in the world accesible at our fingertips.
When millions of books have been scanned and their texts are made available in a single database, search technology will enable us to grab and read any book ever written. Ideally, in such a complete library we should also be able to read any article ever written in any newspaper, magazine or journal. And why stop there? The universal library should include a copy of every painting, photograph, film and piece of music produced by all artists, present and past. Still more, it should include all radio and television broadcasts. Commercials too. And how can we forget the Web? The grand library naturally needs a copy of the billions of dead Web pages no longer online and the tens of millions of blog posts now gone — the ephemeral literature of our time. In short, the entire works of humankind, from the beginning of recorded history, in all languages, available to all people, all the time.
Kevin Kelly of Wired Magazine writes about the raging debate regarding digitizing the world’s books and creating the modern equivalent of the Library of Alexandria. This is pretty much the quest Google has set its sights upon and which is lingering in courts for reasons having to do (mostly) with copyright law.
This is one of the reasons that Kelly’s article is fascinating. As a journalist creating content I’ve never really though of copyright law as something else than a flimsy protection of my rights. Kelly does a great job of explaining the evolution of copyright law, its role in the development of mass produced media, and the purpose it serves for the entities working to protect these copies (publishers, record labels etc.)
Another reason the article is great is the discussion of the the possibility of connections (think Wikipedia) such a library would create through links–not only from book to book, but from words or paragraphs–and then through tags.
These snippets will be remixed into reordered books and virtual bookshelves. Just as the music audience now juggles and reorders songs into new albums (or “playlists,” as they are called in iTunes), the universal library will encourage the creation of virtual “bookshelves” — a collection of texts, some as short as a paragraph, others as long as entire books, that form a library shelf’s worth of specialized information. And as with music playlists, once created, these “bookshelves” will be published and swapped in the public commons. Indeed, some authors will begin to write books to be read as snippets or to be remixed as pages.
Kelly also points out the enormous number of books that the world has orphaned. We are not talking lost scrolls or manuscripts–these books are still available in libraries–but they are in legal limbo because nobody know who owns copyrights for them. Kelly writes: “The size of this abandoned library is shocking: about 75 percent of all books in the world’s libraries are orphaned. Only about 15 percent of all books are in the public domain. A luckier 10 percent are still in print. The rest, the bulk of our universal library, is dark.”
Google or other companies willing to scan these books can’t do it because they can’t tell if it’s legal or not. Books in the public domain are books for which the copyright has expired. Project Guttenberg has over 18,000 free books available for download. It’s easy to identify the copyright of the 10 percent of books still in print (and most of these books are digitized although not available free). But what about the rest? Google’s idea was to scan them and then allow the authors and publishers to opt out of making the work public if they feel this is a breach of copyright. That idea is still being debated by scholars, publishers, technology advocates and lawyers.
Kelly argues technology will eventually prevail and the copy business model will fail.
What is the technology telling us? That copies don’t count any more. Copies of isolated books, bound between inert covers, soon won’t mean much. Copies of their texts, however, will gain in meaning as they multiply by the millions and are flung around the world, indexed and copied again. What counts are the ways in which these common copies of a creative work can be linked, manipulated, annotated, tagged, highlighted, bookmarked, translated, enlivened by other media and sewn together into the universal library.
But who cares about books, right? Wrong. More than 7,000 people posted comments on the Times site a day after this story came out. All of us are waging this battle for knowledge in some way. And it’s not a straightfoward answers as to who (or what) should prevail. But it’s a great time to discuss the issue.