The Google library project strikes me as an excellent idea. I read today on CNET an article suggesting that some publishers were upset with the idea. I think that’s sad. I also think they’re wrong to be upset, because chances are that they will sell more books.
My experience of books on-line suggests that on-line scans or PDFs of books are quite inconvenient—even web pages constructed from the text of a book are often hard to navigate—and I have certainly bought paper copies of books available freely on-line (a recent example being the Subversion book, Version Control with Subversion). I don’t think books are like music, in that downloadable music is a perfectly good format—nobody really needs a CD, LP or cassette—whereas books are much less convenient in electronic form, except that the electronic versions are easier to search, and it is this, I think, that Google has hit upon.
I think this is certainly the case for reference books, and to be honest I think it’s probably true for other types of books as well; for instance, I’m pretty certain that I’ll buy a copy of Peter F. Hamilton’s next book, Judas Unchained, regardless of whether I found an electronic copy beforehand. In fact, I probably wouldn’t read an electronic version because it’d be a pain and it’d spoil the story for me when I got a real book to read.
So, I think that Google should be able to scan all the world’s books. I also think that publishers should probably give Google permission to display all the pages from them (why not—after all, most places have public libraries, which facilitate a similar purpose) but obviously that there should be restrictions on what the end user is allowed to do with them. I don’t think it’s worth worrying about people printing them out… it’s expensive, time consuming and the resulting mass of (unbound) paper is hard to deal with. Indeed, with an inkjet printer, it could easily cost a lot more than the equivalent print book, even the hardback editions (consider—a 500 page book, at 10 pence per page, would cost £50 to print!). OK, laser printers might make printing a book cheaper than buying it, depending on the printer and paper in use, as well as the number of pages you’re talking about, but it’s still going to take ages to print and it’s still going to be a nuisance to use.