Books: The next file-sharing frontier

So Microsoft is winding down its book digitization and search project (and its related academic research project) because it wants to focus on verticals that have a “high commercial intent.” In other words, there’s no money in book scanning. That presumably leaves Google to scan and index all of the world’s knowledge — and to fight the forces of copyright who believe the company’s project is in defiance of the laws covering fair use. Google doesn’t appear to mind (or at least not yet) that book scanning doesn’t produce any revenue. Farhad Manjoo at Salon says this is a classic example of Microsoft’s failure of imagination.

Speaking of imagination, it doesn’t take all that much to see that books are only a few steps away from joining music and movies (and software) as freely pirated content. E-books are already available, of course, but there aren’t that many of them yet — in part because there aren’t that many people using e-book readers. The Kindle could change that, however, as well as new readers that are coming with e-ink displays and low power requirements. But it was a comment on the TechCrunch post about Microsoft’s decision that got me thinking.

The comment mentioned a company called Atiz.com, which makes a relatively cheap version of a book scanning machine. It costs $1,600 — and that doesn’t include the cameras — but that’s orders of magnitude cheaper than the kinds of machines Microsoft uses, which cost as much as $100,000 each. And then I thought about how much university students like my daughter pay for the textbooks they use in school each year, which can cost upwards of $100 per book for something they may only use a few pages of for a particular class.

I think if I were an enterprising — and not especially law-abiding — student at a university, I might just buy a couple of those Atiz machines and a few cheap digital cameras, and start scanning textbooks as fast as I possibly could. Build up a large enough respository of texts and you could start selling them page by page to students, or just let them swap the files on a p2p network. It would be illegal, of course — but no more or less illegal than Napster. And if a student only used excerpts from the books, the principle of fair use might still apply. Not that I’m suggesting anyone do such a thing, of course.

Update:

Speaking of giving books away for free, author Steven Poole did just that with a recent novel he wrote, but says he wasn’t at all impressed with the results. His experience prompted New York Times writer David Pogue to write about his own experiences with book piracy. But as usual, Techdirt writer Mike Masnick (who was kind enough to come and do a presentation at mesh 2008 this week on “the economics of abundance”) takes the argument used by both men apart piece by piece.

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