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Google puts 1.5 million free books on your cellphone

February 5, 2009 |  3:32 pm

Before you authors get upset, never fear: Google is making 1.5 million books available, it announced today, that are in the public domain. There's a lot of good stuff, including everything by Charles Dickens and (pre-zombified) Jane Austen. Our tech blog reports:

"We envision a future where people across the globe can search, discover and access the world's books from any device," Google spokeswoman Jennie Jarvis said in an e-mail.

For all the classics you'll be able to find, there is also a very, very, very, very, very long tail of out-of-print books you've never even thought to explore. Like 1897's "Milk, Cheese and Butter: A Practical Handbook on Their Properties and the Process of Their Production, Including a Chapter on Cream and the Methods of Its Separation From Milk" by John Oliver,  "The Whole Works of King Alfred the Great, With Preliminary Essays Illustrative of the History, Arts and Manners of the Ninth Century," published in 1858, and "The Maid of Sker," published in 1895 by R.D Blackmore, author of "Lorna Doone." You could spend a lifetime reading them on your cellphone and never get through them all.

But Google isn't finished.

The company is also exploring ways to sell copyrighted books through the same platform, she said. It's an exploding market: E-book sales increased 58% last year.

Which the company can only do, I think, after getting to the end of the Google Book Search settlement, which hasn't yet been fully approved. The Electronic Frontier Foundation thinks there are still issues to consider. The foundation points to "Google and the Future of Books," an article in the New York Review of Books by Robert Darnton, director of the Harvard Unversity Library. He writes:

Looking back over the course of digitization from the 1990s, we now can see that we missed a great opportunity. Action by Congress and the Library of Congress or a grand alliance of research libraries supported by a coalition of foundations could have done the job at a feasible cost and designed it in a manner that would have put the public interest first. By spreading the cost in various ways — a rental based on the amount of use of a database or a budget line in the National Endowment for the Humanities or the Library of Congress — we could have provided authors and publishers with a legitimate income, while maintaining an open access repository or one in which access was based on reasonable fees. We could have created a National Digital Library — the twenty-first-century equivalent of the Library of Alexandria. It is too late now. Not only have we failed to realize that possibility, but, even worse, we are allowing a question of public policy — the control of access to information — to be determined by private lawsuit.

I heard that there was a full-page ad in the recent New Yorker addressing authors and the lawsuit, but I haven't seen it. Will the Google Book Search settlement go through as is, do you think, or will there be a fight?

In the meantime, if you want to read free public domain books, courtesy of Google, our tech blog explains how they'll look on your cellphone.

— Carolyn Kellogg

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