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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat

 

    The library of Alexandria … online

    Suppose you wanted to read “”The Seventh Regiment Rhode Island Volunteers in the Civil War 1862-1865,”” a book that went out of print more than a century ago. Where would you go?

    You could try the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. Perhaps the New York Public Library carries a tattered copy. Or are the last few editions tucked away in some dusty unlit room at Oxford University’s distinguished Bodleian Library?

    Regardless of where the book can be found, geographical proximity (or lack thereof) would be a stultifying hindrance to your quest. But if the likes of Amazon.com, Google Inc., Yahoo, Microsoft and other high-tech giants get their way, you may only need a computer with a connection to the Web.

    The idea is a profound one that has not been attempted in over 2,000 years: to collect all the books in the world under one roof. The ancient Library of Alexandria attempted to copy every book ever written, and by some estimates, in 300 B.C., the scribes of Alexandria had successfully copied 75 percent of the world’s tomes – by hand.

    However, today’s quest does not aim to collect the world’s books under one physical roof, but rather a digital one – the World Wide Web. Doing so would be revolutionary for scholars, and subsequently, the online trade in books, offering a potentially lucrative opportunity for profit.

    Problems abound, but not technological ones: Advanced digital scanners allow operators to scan one page for approximately 10 cents. Instead, problems are legal. Copyrights and the controversial issue of intellectual property pose the greatest hindrance to an otherwise noble quest.

    Books published before 1923 are now part of the public domain: Their copyrights have expired and cannot be renewed. These books are already being uploaded onto the Web by Google and the Open Content Alliance, a consortium led by Yahoo and Microsoft.

    The bigger issue is the publication of books after 1923, many of which are out of print but still under copyright. Publisher Tim O’Reilly estimates that 75 percent of all books are still under copyright but out of print, languishing in the libraries of the world, virtually impossible to access for the geographically limited scholar.

    The potential for sharing this knowledge on the Web is huge. But the question remains: How?

    Google argues that scanning copyrighted materials without explicit permission is within the purview of fair-use rights as long as searchers are limited to how much material they can view. Google intends to only show small chunks of copyrighted works to the searcher, not the entire work. The Association of American Publishers and the Authors Guild don’t agree and have subsequently filed suit against Google.

    While the lawsuits run their course, Amazon.com is spearheading a pay-by-page solution for copyrighted materials, entitled Amazon Pages. In the near future, an Amazon.com customer will be able to pay a few cents for the viewing rights to a single page. This solution has the benefit of avoiding a copyright fight with publishers. But it also presents a remarkable shift in what was once part of the public domain.

    Out-of-print books still under copyright are free if viewed at a public library. But online, they become commercial property.

    Surprisingly, this is a positive development, although it runs counter to our romantic notions of libraries as vast repositories for forgotten and rediscovered knowledge. Fortunately, that knowledge no longer has to be forgotten and then rediscovered.

    The Web offers an unprecedented opportunity to access millions of books with search results tailored to our personal preferences. With time, the cost of viewing a particular page will fall as companies compete (imagine Amazon Pages going up against a pay-for-page Google system) and as individually targeted advertisements offset the cost.

    This will be an astonishing development for scholars, students and companies alike. And indeed, the world of research might become just a bit more democratic.

    As for “”The Seventh Regiment,”” you won’t find it at the UA library or any Tucson public library. Instead, it can be found on Google Books. Go ahead, no one’s read it in a century. Knock yourself out.


    Matt Stone is an international studies and economics junior. He can be reached at letters@wildcat.arizona.edu.

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