You Decide: Open Content, or Proprietary?

Dennis Faas's picture

Amidst all the recent hoopla over Amazon's proprietary Kindle reader and the 90,000 ebooks available for it, the popular press has overlooked an product using more than 15 times the number of ebooks being made available through Amazon.

The Million Book Project, led by Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, now offers through its Universal Library the complete texts of more than 1.5 million digitized books, with all available over the Internet for free. With a complimentary text reader, no less. (Source:

To understand how large an effort that is, keep in mind that a typical high school library might have 30,000 books. That makes the Universal Library now about the size of an excellent university library.

True, so far the digitized books have expired copyrights. However, it does include a wide range of both popular and classical literature. For example, you can read an edition of Dickens' " Tale of Two Cities" or Tolstoy's "Anna Karenina".

The Universal Library is a cooperative effort made by several nations (the U.S., China, India, Egypt) and involves more than a dozen universities. It's also the beginning of a much larger effort whose long-term objective is to capture all books in a digital format.

Something Amazon might want to keep in mind before 'pooh-poohing' the Universal Library Project is that it is far from being the only book digitizing effort out there. The Internet Archive has also catalogued more than 200,000 public-domain books that are available in both a browsable and printable format. Then there's Google's own library project still mired in copyright issues.

But the Open Content Alliance (OCA) is the one to watch. Its committed to building and offering its own massive library of available material. The OCA is not to be taken lightly. It includes an enviable list of university libraries (including all the University of California libraries, the MIT libraries, Boston Library Consortium, and the University of Toronto libraries) and also includes notable commercial groups such as Adobe, HP, MSN, O'Reilly, Xerox, and Yahoo. Altogether, the OCA is made up of some 40 different institutions and supports 6 different scanning centers around the U.S. (Source:

Altogether, these efforts are overwhelming and, with time, will only get larger. The good news is that they promise to bring important knowledge and literature to every person on the planet.

The bad news could be for Amazon -- their effort may be a case of "too little too late" to establish any meaningful proprietary stake in digitized books.

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