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Digitize the world of books March 26, 2011

Posted by gordonwatts in Books, physics life.

Those of you watching would have noticed that a judge threw a spanner in the plans of Google to digitize the world’s book collection:

The company’s plan to digitize every book ever published and make them widely available was derailed on Tuesday when a federal judge in New York rejected a sweeping $125 million legal settlement the company had worked out with groups representing authors and publishers.

I am a huge fan of the basic idea. Every book online and digital and accessible from your computer. I’m already almost living the life professionally: all the journal articles I use are online. The physics preprint archive, arivx.org, started this model and as a result has spawned new types of conversation – papers that are never submitted to journals. Pretty much the only time I walk over to the library is to look at some textbook up there. The idea of doing the same thing to all the books – well I’m a huge fan.

However, I do not like the idea of one company being the gateway to something like that. Most of the world’s knowledge is written down in one form or another – it should not be locked away behind some wall that is controlled by one company.

I’d rather see a model where we expect, in the long term, that all books and copyrighted materials will eventually enter the public domain. At that point they should be easily accessible online. When you think of the problem like this it seems like there is an obvious answer: the Library of Congress.

Copyrighted books are a tougher nut to crack. There publishers and authors presumably will still want to make money off this. And making out-of-print books available will offer some income (though not much – there is usually a reason those books are out of print). In this case the Google plan isn’t too bad – but having watched journals price gouge because they can, I’m very leery of seeing this happen again here. I’d rather see an independent entity setup that will act as a clearing house. Perhaps they aren’t consumer facing – rather they sell access and charge for books to various companies that then make the material available to us end users. This model is similar to what is done in the music business. I purchase (or rent) my music through Zune – I don’t deal directly with any of the record labels. The only problem is this model doesn’t have competition to keep prices down (i.e. nothing stops this one entity from price gouging).

Lastly, I think having all this data available will open a number of opportunities for things we can think of now. But I think that we need to make sure the data is also available in a raw form so that people can innovate.

Print books are dying. Some forms will take longer than others – I would expect the coffee table picture book to take longer before it converts to all digital than a paper-back novel. But I’m pretty confident that the switch is well underway now. What we do with all the print books is a crucial question. I do think we should be spending money on moving these books into the digital age. Not only are they the sum of our knowledge, but they are also a record of our society.