Oct 11th 2011, 11:02 by G.F. | SEATTLE
ONCE Babbage buys a book he finds it hard to let go. As middle age approaches, however, and shelf space grows sparse, he has begun to shed titles, retaining only those he actually expects to consult in the future (plus a handful he holds on to for purely sentimental reasons). Now, a firm is offering to slake his voracious appetite for new tomes without forcing him to relinquish old ones—or, at least, their contents.
1DollarScan is the American outpost of the Japanese firm Bookscan, founded to solve the problem of scant space in Japan’s poky urban dwellings and to prevent damage caused by bookshelf-toppling earthquakes. (Bookscan has no relation to Nielsen BookScan, an American retail-sales-tracking service). Ship your volumes to 1DollarScan, and the company will slice off the spine, and charge $1 for every 100 pages scanned. (The firm also scans routine documents and photos.) It uses high-speed Canon scanners, with optical-character recognition (OCR) software developed jointly by Bookscan and Canon. The process does not yet produce text in standard e-book formats; instead, customers receive PDF files that show the scanned image, but also have whatever text was successfully extracted in a separate, searchable layer. The resulting files are chunky: tens of megabytes per book, or 100 times bigger than Amazon’s Kindle titles. But it is a start.
Hiroshi Nakano, the boss of 1DollarScan, says a few thousand books have been received in the first month or so of operation. And that is before the firm has begun its marketing drive, or adapted its Japanese-language smartphone software (for reading and managing user accounts) for English speakers. One early surprise has been the linguistic diversity of books sent over: besides English, there have been Portuguese, Hebrew and Arabic titles, among others. Boxes of books are being shipped in from Europe, too, in English and other languages. (The firm uses slightly different OCR software depending on the language in question.) Another difference is the volume of individual orders. Where Japanese customers send batches of 150 books, the California-based service is seeing an average closer to 30.
Chopped-up books are recycled; they are not retained and the firm will not return the pieces. Jessamyn West, a library-technology advocate and editor at the popular community discussion site MetaFilter, calls it “the transubstantiation of the printed word”. Initially, Ms West shared Babbage’s squeamishness about putting books to the knife. But she has bought the argument that there is a huge difference between destroying the very last copy of a work, or one with handwritten annotations, and a mass-market duplicate. A digital copy of the latter is just as useful as the paper version.
The reason for discarding the paper pages after scanning has to do with the ambiguous borders of American copyright law. Mr Nakano and his legal advisers believe that portions of doctrine (related to so-called fair use and first sale) protect the firm’s activities. Yet this remains far from assured. Under fair use individuals have the right to copy music they own for personal use (though the jury is still out on whether this extends to ripping digital files). But that pertains only to music, not to any other media. First-sale doctrine, meanwhile, lets one sell, loan, donate or even destroy a book without permission from the copyright holder. Transforming it, however, is another matter altogether.
As a consequence, when 1DollarScan scans a particular edition for the first time, it does not create a master copy. Instead, each book is treated as a unique item, even if that same edition has already been scanned a number of times for different customers. This strategy sets 1DollarScan apart from MP3.com. In 2001 that company allowed subscribers to access master digital copies of music online after they had confirmed ownership by inserting the appropriate audio CD into their computer. What did for MP3 was that its system could be easily gamed—by duplicating CDs, say. It was forced to settle a lawsuit and discontinued the service.
Mr Nakano, for his part, hopes to strike deals with publishers to allow 1DollarScan’s customers to trade in an analogue copy for a digital one. Publishers would get a slice of the fee and remove a second-hand copy from the market making space for spanking new digital ones they sell. If all goes to plan, customers may get their hands on digital copies of works that may not otherwise be available as e-books. And, crucially, they could avoid purchasing content they have already paid for.
[Original article here.]