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Sony Reader Gets 500,000 Free Public Domain Titles from Google

Google is further exposing some of the 7 million books it has scanned from academic collections by making 500,000 titles with no remaining copyright protection available to Sony for its electronic book device, the Reader Digital Book. Reports indicate that only books from 1922 or earlier are included, as 1922 is the latest date for which public domain status is entirely clear. (Many works published after 1922 are also in the public domain, but each work must be researched individually to determine its status.)

Earlier this year, Google added an option to view but not download 2 million public domain books on the iPhone; see “More Ebooks Available for the iPhone/iPod touch,” 2009-02-09. That’s more like a Pandora stream than an iTunes song purchase.

Google’s program to scan books ran afoul of publishers’ and authors’ concerns about the right to scan and archive titles, and the legality of snippets being displayed from these scanned works. A preliminary settlement between Google and various interested parties should make millions of books available for viewing, printing, download, and purchase in the coming months; these titles could also wind up being available for the Reader Digital Book. (See “Authors and Publishers Settle with Google Book Search,” 2008-10-29.)

It would seem that Google has chosen to side with Sony instead of Amazon in the nascent ebook reader world. The Wall Street Journal notes Sony said its Reader Digital Book sales are at 400,000 and reported that Citigroup estimated Amazon Kindle sales at 500,000. That sales level seems quite good for a new category of consumer device, but it’s nowhere close to the 17 million iPhones and 13 million iPod touches that Apple has sold so far over a similar period. (The original iPhone and Sony Reader were both introduced on the same day in June 2007, the iPod touch in September 2007, and the Amazon Kindle in November 2007.)

The Kindle 2, introduced in February 2009, improves on the design of the original device and has a faster screen refresh (“Kindle 2 Improves Design, Not Features,” 2009-02-26). Amazon released Kindle for iPhone shortly after the Kindle 2 hardware (“Amazon Releases Kindle Software for iPhone,” 2009-03-03). Amazon offers 245,000 books for sale along with subscriptions to dozens of magazines and newspapers, and hundreds of blogs. The iPhone software can download only books, not subscriptions. That may change with Apple’s iPhone 3.0 software, which will enable
in-application subscriptions and purchases (“Apple Previews iPhone 3.0 Software,” 2009-03-17).

Lest we forget, the volunteers of Project Gutenberg have been assiduously typing, scanning, and correcting out-of-copyright works for many years. Project Gutenberg’s catalog, now containing over 28,000 books, includes downloads in text and other formats, including a DRM-free ePub format that both the Reader Digital Book and Kindle 2 can handle. Affiliated and partner projects bring Project Gutenberg’s grand total to 100,000 titles.

While Project Gutenberg has a fraction of what Google has made available, the quality should be higher, as works have been prepared for accuracy instead of volume, and represent works more likely to be interesting to a modern audience than just historians and researchers.

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