Book Scanning = Book transubstantiation?

The Economist (“Book transubstantiation”) profiles 1DollarScan, a fairly new but apparently quite successful commercial book-scanning service.*

The company’s price point ($1 per 100 pages, to be exact) is certainly enticing enough for those looking to free up some space on their bookshelves. As their How It Works page explains, the books are shipped to 1DollarScan, the book spine is sliced off (!), scanned, and then processed into a handy PDF form. Near as we can tell from the samples, but there might be some questions about how useful the finished product is or isn’t (i.e., searchable text?).

Here’s where things get interesting: what happens to those chopped-up books? And, why? Per The Economist:

“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.”

Like the Babbage column, I’m more than a little skeptical if this approach is ultimately going to pass the legal sniff test when it comes to American Copyright Law. That being said, at least for now, this is a rather handy service to have. (I’d use it, if it weren’t for having to make a Sophie’s Choice of having to destroy my print book copy in order to replace it with a digital one).

This last bit also caught my eye. Will book publishers go for this? Come to think of it, why aren’t offering more such services already? Would sort of be the opposite of the espresso book machine approach … instead of print on demand, perhaps digital copies on demand?

[BoookScan] 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.”

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* Thanks J. Raimo for the article recommendation!

** Here is a video of the book scanning in action. It’s in Japanese. But I got the gist of it. At least, I think I did.


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I run the ThinkLab at the University of Cambridge, and research digital habits, productivity, and wellbeing.

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