Great Googling Gaggles of Bookses

There has been a great furore a-brewin over the dreaded Google getting out there and scanning books to add to the stuff they index, so us plebs can search it.

In general there seems little dispute about the desirability of scanning, indexing, and presenting whole books that are out of copyright. In other words, written over about 100 to 150 years ago. Pretty much everyone can get the reasoning – literature and knowledge that it inaccessible or out of print is suddenly accessible again: I don’t have to travel to some dusty library in Alexandria in order to ferret out an exotic tome on the legal principles underpinning grain transport in ancient Babylon.

Where everybody (especially publishers) is getting in a lather is about books that are still in copyright – in other words, younger than 50 years after the death of the author. That’s pretty much the vast majority of books in the world.

The concerns here seem to be twofold – how the deals are done with the copyright owners, and the general principle of digitising an in-copyright book in the first place.

The big trouble with all the excitement is the publishing industry need to understand their role. The publishing house has always been the middle-man between author and market – weeding out the rubbish, editing, arranging printing and distribution, collecting the money, paying the authors yada yada yada.

The publishing houses control the supply. So when you want to buy a book, and can’t because it’s out of print – that’s the publishing house saying “you want to give me money but I don’t want to take it. And if you are naughty and get that book and stick it on the photocopier then it’s illegal and I’ll get very grumpy with you.” Heads they win, tails you lose. In this case, so does the author.

Allowing books to be on-line, searchable, browseable, puts the power back in the hands of the readers. We don’t have to suffer the tyranny of distance (to the dusty library). Even better – by searching the content of a book we can find things we didn’t know we didn’t know. (A touch Rumsfeldian… think about it). Suddenly, knowledge and literature is available.

For books in copyright but out of print – nobody is going to lose money if the book is suddenly on-line. It wasn’t available, remember?

For books in copyright and in print, the approach used is to allow only a portion of the book to be viewed (but still a full content search). So I can see the few pages of interest when I want to know about Crypographic Ciphers, or All Animals Being Equal But Some More Equal Than Others*, or Accounting Standards, or Pipe bend radii in 1/8 inch mild steel pipes. And if I find that the book is useful, and available I can go buy it. Before search, I didn’t even know it was there so that I could buy it. Or I could only search a bookstore by title. Slow, dull, and requires great leaps of faith.

Book search and browse makes the world a better place – it puts more knowledge where it is most useful, at low cost. And those who want to buy now know what to buy. Copyright owners should see more sales, not less.

What’s the big deal? Get on with it.


* I”m pretty sure that the estate of George Orwell are being a bit difficult about his books going on line. Time to get over it, methinks.


I can see how this is a great idea, but for me nothing beats browsing a bookstore or library.

Comment by river | August 7th, 2009 8:19 pm | Permalink

The problem is that the book you would really like to read may not be in any bookstore in your city. In your state. In your country. By putting them online you can see them and read them. Perhaps when a book is in copyright but not in print we should be able to read them online. But when this results in a surge of interest the book goes back in print and the online version goes to the partially readable type. This would be good for the author and good for the state of knowledge of the world.

Comment by Jack | August 10th, 2009 8:53 am | Permalink


Comment by Wally | August 10th, 2009 7:11 pm | Permalink

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