Google and On Demand Books Bring the Public Domain to the Public

Brandon Evenson is a JD candidate at Osgoode Hall Law School.

Given Google’s internet footprint, it would be easy for any web surfer to mistakenly conclude that Google is out to rule the online world. These surfers must be reminded, however, that Google’s true mission is to “organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.” And this doesn’t necessarily involve being evil (see #6), or limiting itself to only online dealings.

Google recently announced a partnership with On Demand Books. On Demand Books has developed the Espresso Book Machine — a fully automated book making machine which can print, bind and trim a library quality paperback book in as little as 3 minutes at the cost of $3.  This machine, combined with the 2 million public domain books Google has scanned over the past 7 years, promises to flip the book publishing and distribution model on its head.

Both companies hope campus bookstores and libraries will take advantage of the pairing of the technology and information to provide customers with a unique book buying experience. The Espresso Book Machine sells for around $100,000, and the service is already available in Canada at the University of Alberta Bookstore in Edmonton, McGill University Library, The University of Waterloo Bookstore, and Oscar’s Art Bookstore (coming 2010) in Vancouver.

This new service will undoubtedly impact a number of areas including the retail book business, academia, libraries, and communities at large.

Both online and offline retailers such as Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and Chapters-Indigo are certainly taking note. This lower cost distribution model could challenge the already low cost online model which has supplanted the traditional retail bookstore.

The arrangement fundamentally flips the book distribution model on its head, taking advantage of the ‘long tail’ . Typically, content is decentralized and production centralized. This means a high fixed cost portion of production and distribution requiring production runs to be large (even with Print-On-Demand). Under the new model, content is centralized and production decentralized. With minimal production costs and virtually no distribution costs, production runs no longer need to be large. The point: This technology is perfectly suited to promulgating esoteric books that are no longer copyright protected.

One of the underlying policies of copyright law is that material should only be protected for a fixed period of time, after which it becomes part of the public domain. While this may hold true for classics like Homer’s Odyssey, Shakespeare’s Macbeth, and Charles Dickens’ Tales of Two Cities, it is arguable that specialized, off copyright literature becomes lost and forgotten, never to be published again. By the time a book is no longer under copyright protection, production has long ceased and demand isn’t high enough to offset the high fixed cost of further production. Interested readers of specialized materials are restricted to second-hand bookstores and libraries — both of which pose problems for effectively collecting and distributing valuable literature to the public. Used book stores may have a variety of material and offer collectors the thrill of finding a gem, but for those readers looking for a specific book there are no guarantees even after hours of searching. It is true that libraries are well organized and have a breadth of material, yet some of the largest collections restrict the general public from accessing or checking books out (eg. Library of Congress, Harvard University Library, University of Toronto’s Robarts Library). On Demand Books and Google plan to remedy this. Somewhat ironically, hopeful library patrons who are unable to gain access to a library’s books can now print their own for a couple of dollars right next door.

Theoretically this sounds great, but how useful are off copyright books? One reader used print-offs of old farming techniques discovered in a Google public domain book to teach still relevant skills to subsistent African farmers. Another reader found a long-lost knitting book from which she recreated heirloom pieces and built a loom. With anecdotes likes these, one must certainly wonder what kind of world we would be living in if Google really was in-charge.