Google: Start up those book scanners!

I just got an email from Google PR, saying the company has settled its long-running legal battle with publishers and authors over its ambitious book-scanning project, a settlement that was rumoured to be in the works for the past month or so. The project has been under a cloud since 2005, when the Association of American Publishers and the Authors Guild filed two class-action lawsuits alleging that scanning books without permission amounted to large-scale copyright infringement. The Web company said it would remove books from its index on request, but authors and publishers said this reverse-onus approach was unfair.

As part of the settlement, Google is paying $125-million to settle the legal claims, pay legal costs for the two groups, and — more importantly — will set up a new entity called the Book Rights Registry, which will be responsible for distributing payments that come from online access to books provided through Google (and through any similar programs created by other providers). The registry will also be responsible for locating rightsholders for old and out-of-print books, collecting and maintaining accurate info, and for providing a way for rightsholders to “request inclusion in or exclusion from the project.” In effect, Google is setting up a body that does what ASCAP and similar groups do for musicians.

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Seth Godin’s advice for aspiring authors

Cartoonist and wine-marketing genius Hugh Macleod of Gaping Void asked marketing guru Seth Godin some questions recently, which he has posted on his blog. One of my favourites is when Hugh asks Seth what the hardest lessons are for a first-time author to learn:

“Books are souvenirs that hold ideas. Ideas are free. If no one knows about your idea, you fail. If your idea doesn’t spread, you fail. If your idea spreads but no one wants to own the souvenir edition, you fail.”

If I were a publisher, or an author’s agent, or teaching a class on writing, I would engrave that somewhere very prominent.

Google launches new book widgets

Google has announced new Google Book Search browsable widgets, as well as partnerships with retailers such as Books-A-Million and other booksellers that will see the “browse inside this book” feature added to their reviews and book pages, and also allow virtually anyone with a website to embed a Google book reader widget.

In addition to Books-A-Million, the company says that previews will be available soon at Borders and Buy.com, and that thousands of books will also be available for preview directly from the online library catalogues at both the University of Texas and the University of California. The new browsable widgets have also been incorporated into the websites of book publishers such as O’Reilly, Macmillan and Stanford University Press.

Of course, what the Google press release (or blog post) doesn’t mention is that millions of books aren’t available for preview through its Book Search widget because its book-scanning project continues to be the subject of multiple lawsuits and threats of legal action from book publishers, author groups and so on (Google’s response to those criticisms is here). And when it comes to non-Google book-browsing options, Amazon has its Ajax-powered online reader, while HarperCollins and Random House Publishing both have their own versions of a browsable book-search widgets.

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.

Which is worse: piracy or anonymity?

The book publishing industry seems to be slowly coming to the realization that digital media affects them just as it does the music and movie business: The Times has a story about a bleak forecast from the London-based Society of Authors that “book piracy on the Internet will ultimately drive authors to stop writing unless radical methods are devised to compensate them for lost sales.” Hey, I know — what about a tax on ISP accounts? Some of those in the music industry seem to think that will solve all of their problems.

The story talks about how the Internet is “awash” with copies of entire books by J.K. Rowling and others, as well as chapters or excerpts from popular novels and other books, and throws in some scare-mongering about Google’s book-scanning project. Then the chairman of the Society of Authors, Tracy Chevalier, comes up with her view of the dark future that lies ahead if the Internet isn’t stopped somehow:

“For a while it will be great for readers because they will pay less and less but in the long run it’s going to ruin the information. People will stop writing. There’s a lot of ‘wait and see what the technology brings’ but the trouble is if you wait and see too long then it’s gone. That’s what happened to the music industry.”

Is the music industry gone? Hardly. It may in the midst of a painful transition from one business model to another, but it is hardly gone. Apple has sold billions of songs through iTunes, and both artists and record labels that are open to new ideas are finding ways to use the Web instead of just complaining about it. So are authors: Brazilian novelist Paul Coelho, for example, has been actively pirating his own books, and has found that his sales have increased by leaps and bounds.

He’s not the only one either — other authors are either providing copies of their own books for free or as a “pay what you want” download, or are offering chapters for readers to download. As one author put it on his blog, for a writer obscurity is a much worse fate than piracy (as Tim O’Reilly noted back in 2002). Ms. Chevalier would be better off helping her members experiment with some of these new models, rather than sitting behind the barricades waiting for someone to rescue her.

Update:

On reading Mike Masnick’s take on the Times piece at Techdirt, I think I may have been a bit too harsh with respect to Ms. Chevalier’s comments — although I will note that one of the prospects she raises as an alternative is government intervention, which seems to me to be a slippery slope leading to something like the music industry’s ISP tax. In any case, Mike makes a good point that at least she seems to be open to new models, and to that extent she should be congratulated.