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Microsoft hands Google the future of digital books

Here, have a monopoly

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While Bill Gates now holds a lucrative monopoly on digital images, his successors don't see the same prosperous future for the digital word. Microsoft is withdrawing from the Open Content Alliance digitisation project and will cease to scan books, the company said on Friday. It's abandoning its Live Book Search venture - a curious decision, since it effectively hands the future of the book to arch-rival Google.

Why? Because the Open Content Alliance is out of money - and Microsoft was by far the biggest financial backer.

Brewster Kahle, whose Internet Archive project is a key OCA member, admitted the financial impact of Microsoft's withdrawal was "significant" and that the Alliance now needed fresh resources to keep the scanners running. The initial $10m was almost completely exhausted.

Google differs from the impoverished Alliance in that it doesn't ask for permission from copyright holders; it simply instructs its stormtroopers - the participating libraries - to rev their machines and start copying.

For this, the ad giant has received lawsuits in the US and France from authors and publishers. Google has fought back using sock puppets of its own. Stanford Law School's anti-copyright centre has been helping out the Google cause - and received a $2m thank you in return.

(Curiously, "anti-corruption campaigner" Professor Lessig omits this relationship in his own, verbose declaration of interests - a taste of things to come, perhaps.)

Yet the policy will be brutally effective, with Google holding a monopoly on the printed word in book form.

Microsoft says it will donate the books digitised by Live Book Search to the copyright holders. Meanwhile, Google will surely never see a monopoly fall into its lap quite so easily. The future of digital books is now entirely in its hands.

(But perhaps not the future of books - given how superior paper technology is to digital. As Simon Jenkins wrote recently, the physical book just looks better all the time.)

Your thoughts, as ever, are most welcome. ®

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