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Sony pact opens ebook war

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Escalating the ebook wars, Google has backed Sony's Reader Digital Book with more than half a million public-domain titles coded in the open ePub format.

The move, announced today, gives Sony's eBook store more than 600,000 titles in total, dwarfing the roughly 245,000 closed-format titles currently available for the much-hyped Amazon Kindle.

With this morning's press release, both Sony and Google emphasized the use of ePub. "We have focused our efforts on offering an open platform and making it easy to find as much content as possible," said Steve Haber, president of the Digital Reading Business Division at Sony Electronics. "Working with Google, we can offer book lovers another avenue for free books while still providing a seamless experience from our store."

Through its Google Book Search project - originally called Google Print - the Mountain View Chocolate Factory has spent the past few years digitizing books from many of the world's leading libraries, including the New York Public Library and the Harvard University Library.

"We founded Google Book Search on the premise that anyone, anywhere, anytime should have the tools to explore the great works of history and culture - and not just when they happen to be at a computer," said Adam Smith, a Google product-management director. "We believe in an open platform for accessing and reading books, and we're excited to partner with Sony to help bring these public-domain books to more people."

The more than half a million ePub-ified Google titles - including Mark Twain's A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court and Jane Austen's Sense and Sensibility - are available from the Sony eBook store free of charge. Owners of Sony's Reader Digital Book can transfer titles to either the PRS-505 or PRS-700 incarnations of the device - though not the older PRS-500. Those without a Reader can read via Sony's free eBook Library software - if they're running Windows in the US or Canada.

The Google titles are already available in PDF format, and that's supported by the Sony Reader as well. Meanwhile, the Amazon Kindle only handles books encoded with the company's DRM-ified .AZW format and the unprotected mobipocket format that AZW is based on. Amazon will convert PDFs to AZW, but only if you pay them.

Amazon has taken the early lead in the ebook market. But it's Google - and its partners - that are better positioned for the long haul. It's not just that Google has embraced open standards, encoding books in formats that can be read by anyone. It's that Google recently reached a sweeping $125m class-action settlement with the US Authors Guild and the Association of American Publishers that could give the company a kind of legal monopoly in the ebook market.

The settlement has Google giving itself $34.5m to maintain a "Book Rights Registry" where authors and publishers can resolve copyright claims - in exchange for a pre-defined cut of Google's revenues. "Google alone has the wealth to digitize on a massive scale. And having settled with the authors and publishers, it can exploit its financial power from within a protective legal barrier; for the class-action suit covers the entire class of authors and publishers," Harvard Libraries chief wrote in a recent issue of The New York Review of Books.

Google will sell copyrighted works but also use them as means of juicing its primary business: ad serving.

The company just introduced a version of Book Search for the iPhone. And Amazon quickly followed suit with free Kindle software for the Jobsian status symbol. What it can't do is match that $125m class-action settlement. ®

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