17 September 2009

Analogue or Digital? - Both, Please

Recently, I bought the complete works of Brahms. Of course, I was faced with the by-now common problem of whether to buy nostalgic CDs, or evanescent MP3s. The price was about the same, so there was no guidance there. Of course, ecologically, I should have gone for the downloads, but in the end I choose the CDs - partly for the liner stuff you never get with an MP3, and partly because I have the option of degrading the CD bits to lossy MP3, which doesn't work so well the other way.

So imagine my surprise - and delight - when I discovered after paying for said CDs that the company - Deutsche Grammophon - had also given me access to most of the CDs as streams from its Web site, for no extra cost (I imagine the same would have been true of the MP3s). This was a shrewd move because (a) it made me feel good about the company, even though it cost them very little, and (b) I'm now telling people about this fact, which is great publicity for them.

But maybe my delight is actually a symptom of something deeper: that having access to both analogue and digital instantiations of information is getting the best of both worlds.

This struck me when I read the following story:

Google will make some 2 million out-of-copyright books that it has digitally scanned available for on-demand printing in a deal announced Thursday. The deal with On Demand Books, a private New York-based company, lets consumers print a book in about 10 minutes, and any title will cost around $8.

The books are part of a 10 million title corpus of texts that Google ( GOOG - news - people ) has scanned from libraries in the U.S. and Europe. The books were published before 1923, and therefore do not fall under the copyright dispute that pits Google against interests in technology, publishing and the public sector that oppose the company's plans to allow access to the full corpus.

That in itself, is intriguing: Google getting into analogue goods? But the real importance of this move is hinted at in the following:

On Demand already has 1.6 million titles available for print, but the Google books are likely to be more popular, as they can be searched for and examined through Google's popular engine.

That's true, but not really the key point, which is that as well as being able to search *for* books, you can search *through* them. That is, Google is giving you an online search capability for the physical books you buy from them.

This is a huge breakthrough. At the moment, you have to choose between the pleasure of reading an analogue artefact, and the convenience of its digital equivalent. With this new scheme, Google will let you find a particular phrase - or even word - in the book you have in your hands, because the latter is a physical embodiment of the one you use on the screen to search through its text.

The trouble is, of course, that this amazing facility is only available for those books out of copyright that Google has scanned. Which gives us yet another reason for repealing the extraordinarily stupid copyright laws that stop this kind of powerful service being offered for *all* text.

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Dale Strickland-Clark said...

Very nice but you have no analogue copy. CDs and MP3s are both digital. The distinction you should have made is that you have a lossless (CD) and lossy (MP3) copy.

Glyn Moody said...

Well, my Brahmsian intro was meant more metaphorically than literally: you're right, of course, but what interests me more is the Google book, where the distinction is really analogue vs digital.

(And a pedant might point out that CDs are also lossy since they are digitised with a finite number of bits....)

Dale Strickland-Clark said...

Apologies. After I posted, I suspected I was being too literal.

Glyn Moody said...

@Dale: no apologies necessary - I like to be kept on my toes, it stops me getting *too* flabby in my thinking...

Egon Willighagen said...

Hi Glyn, over at FriendFeed [0] we were discussing copyright on the pre-1923 data set, particularly in relation to the science books...

Do you know if Google claims copyright over their scanned material, either PDF or OCR-ed version, or even both? Do you think they can claim such copyright, and in which jurisdictions would that copyright hold, if they do have copyright?

Your thoughts are much appreciated!


PS. I replied in my blog too [1].


Glyn Moody said...

@Egon: IANAL, but my understanding is that if a book is public domain, then no amount of republishing can put it back into copyright. Attempts to do so are known as copyfraud.

There's a good intro to this kind of copyfraud here:


more rigorous stuff here: