Scan those books!

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.

6 Responses to “Scan those books!”

  1. I suppose a goodly number of those folks support an alternative to free-ishness of information that might include DRM, heavy handed criminal penalties and something like a “Trusted Computing” model for the prevention of copyright infringement.

    Some folks are opposed to the various schemes loosely based on the original American time-limited protection of copyright and patents for only 14 years because the founding fathers believed that overly-protective barriers stifle innovation and hamstring society as a whole.

    Contrast that today with corporations who bilk fortunes without any work by merely buying Congressmen to extend copyright to 70 years after the death of the author or propose of ever-increasing patent terms…

    I absolutely agree it’s a fascinating time to have these sorts of discussions. For my nickel, SlashDot provides a near endless supply of logical (and funny) arguments both for and against various artificial protection rackets. Bias? Not I…

  2. It really is about technology mainly, in my view. Whether we like it or not, paper still is… technology. Meanwhile, the past centuries would indicate that technology prevails.

    Another view: printed media have ‘readership’ in a way more acknowledged and monitored manner than books. All under their respective copyright. A change of technology will not bring about a change in behavior, portability and, thus, readership. As a Romanian, I know quite well that it all is about human interest, that I will get my hands on the object of desire, copyrighted as it may have been; I say Romanian because we are somewhat notorious for finding our way towards ‘free’ resources.

  3. You’re right to point out that paper is a technology. It’s been a precious one heavily guarded in Europe’s violent, repressive past. People literally died for centuries over the technology of paper and the product of books. Only of late has it reached a state of free-ishness.

    The argument isn’t about paper versus digital, of course. Paper is most definitely on it’s way out. Last legs and falling over. The knives have been drawn over the element of control. How much wiggle room for the free-ishness of these works will there be?

    You can certainly bet the lazy cartel of publishers who rake in obscene amounts of money from their domination of distribution will not go quietly into the night. They will fight tooth and nail to obstruct any new forms of distribution which might exclude them, give more leverage to authors, and/or generally increase free-ishness.

    That’s all this really is about. The maintenance of a fat oligarchy.

  4. What’s interesting is that in the US this is ceratinly a fight about the maintaining of an oligarchy. It may be less so in other countries — Romania included — where copyright is an obscure concept, which as Gorgeoux pointed out, is easy to sidestep.

    So you could argue Romania is among the leaders of the pack in the anti-copyright movement 🙂 Or is that the ripping and stealing movement?

    I believe paper worldwide has a good few decades to go before it might really be threatened. I agree that printed media such as newspapers are in trouble (and I could go on forever on this topic), but I think magazines, books and other printed artifacts still have a serious life-span ahead of them.

  5. With the advent of e-paper, magazines will continue on in a televized format for quite a long time, I think.

    Books will stick around a bit as well. Those readers just don’t mimic the experience anywhere as well. But, then, subscribing to a Book of the Month Club delivered to your Amazon eBook made with ePaper could effectively work.

    You’ve caused me to go seeking out libraries here. It’s just occurred to me, as I ponder why it is Romanians seem to buy almost no books, that I’ve never seen a library in Romania. Surely, the university, but anywhere else? I shall find out.

    If Romania continues to develop its BSD and Linux roots (as I see happening) then it could, indeed, emerge as a leader of the pack. Like the Internet itself, F/OSS is a remarkable cultural shift.

    In the meantime, I’m waiting for your post describing what it’s like in journalist circles to *know* (finally, no more tinfoil hat jokes) the government is actively targeting you. Do they even care? I get the impression most of them don’t care “enough.”

  6. The Earl of Slander Says:

    The copyright is an obsolete concept, and they struggle to keep it alive only for the sake of gaining a little more coin.

    But dark times await those who don’t know how to adapt..:)

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