Thursday, January 14, 2010

DIY Book Scanner--Piracy or Not?

For the past 18 months I've been working on a digitization project for local history materials. (Hence my unhealthy co-dependent relationship with the Reverend William T. Price.) That's how I came to follow Digitization Blog's RSS feed, and discover Wired Magazine's article: DIY Book Scanners Turn Your Books Into Bytes.

For nearly two years, Daniel Reetz dreamed of a book scanner that could crunch textbooks and spit out digital files he could then read on his PC.

Book scanners, like the ones Google is using in its Google Books project, run into thousands of dollars, putting them out of the reach of a graduate student like Reetz. But in January, when textbook prices for the semester were listed, Reetz decided he would make a book scanner that would cost a fraction of commercially available products....

"The hardware is ridiculously simple as long as you are not demanding archival quality," he says. "A dumpster full of building materials, really cheap cameras and outrageous textbook prices was all I needed to do it."

Reetz went on to upload a 79-step how-to guide for building a book scanner (.pdf). The guide has sparked more than 400 comments. It has also spawned a website,, where more than 50 independent book scanners spread across countries such as Indonesia, Russia and Britain have contributed hardware refinements and software programs....

For details on the "how-to" of it, you can visit DIY Book Scanning news and forum, or download the 79-step how-to guide for building a book scanner (.pdf). The Wired article focuses more on the "whys" and "why nots" of do-it-yourself digitization.

Reetz says the DIY book-scanning forum isn't about distributing pirated content, but he can see the temptation. "My project was founded in angry desperation," he says. "It was a watershed moment when I realized getting an 8-megapixel Canon camera was cheaper than buying a bunch of textbooks."

As adjunct faculty at a couple of colleges, I sometimes teach science, math and computer classes, and I can tell you the cost of textbooks will make your hair stand on end (even at the intro level, where economies of scale could keep expenses in check). The schools won't let the students see the ISBN numbers of the required texts, to prevent them from shopping online for second-hand books, and they even forbid cell-phones in the campus bookstores, lest price-conscious students photograph shrink-wrapped book covers. Patently unfair practices like these seem designed to encourage piracy.

So are Reetz and the builders of the DIY scanner pirates? That would depend on who you talk to, says Pamela Samuelson, a professor at University of California at Berkeley, who specializes in digital-copyright law. Trade publishers are almost certain to cry copyright infringement, she says, though it may not necessarily be the case.

....If you scan a book that you have already purchased, it is "fine, and fair use," she says. "Personal-use copying should be deemed to be fair, unless there is a demonstrable showing of harm to the market for the copyright at work," says Samuelson. But not so individual users who already own the book....For publishers, though, the growth of the DIY scanning community could hurt. Publishers today sell digital versions to customers who already own hardcover or paperback versions of the same book.

"You cannot look at this idea from the perspective of whether the publisher can make extra money," says Samuelson. "Publishers would love it if you can't resell books either, but that's not going to happen."

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