The very existence of a book scanner for consumer use is one of those early warnings of turbulence to come.
Could the publishing industry get Napsterized? That was my first thought when I saw the marketing materials for the Atiz BookSnap, the first consumer device that enables you to "release the content" of your books by transforming the printed words on the page into digital files that can be read on computers and handheld e-readers. "It's not a scanner," proclaims a banner on the Atiz Web site. "It's a book ripper." Though ripping (which means transferring content from an external medium to your computer) does not necessary imply an act of piracy, I couldn't help but wonder whether this was a sign of impending apocalypse on Publishers' Row, a scenario that could end up with people file-sharing John Grisham's latest they way they do now with the newest Vampire Weekend tunes.
He found a partner and CEO by watching "The Apprentice," the reality television show with Donald Trump. One of the contestants was Nick Warnock, a Bayonne, N.J.-born Xerox-copier salesman. After The Donald uttered his trademark dismissal to Warnock, Booppanon recruited him as a partner. All but two of the 14 employees at Atiz are based in Bangkok, where the BookSnap is manufactured at a low cost.
Booppanon and Warnock both believe that the BookSnapâ€”and cheaper versions to followâ€”will encourage people to scan their collections so they can quickly search through them and grab a shelf's worth of reading for a trip across the world or on the subway. Warnock says that potential BookSnap buyers will be college students, bibliophiles and just plain folks who "want to digitize their own library." But what if someone gives copies of scanned books still under copyright to a friend or twoâ€”or a few thousand friends via an Internet file-sharing site? "All copyright laws should be followed," says Warnock, knowing that to say otherwise is the kind of boo-boo that gets marketers hauled up to the dreaded boardroom for dismissal.
Not that publishers seem worried. "I'm not going to lose sleep over the BookSnap," says Pat Schroeder, the former Colorado congresswoman who is CEO of the Association of American Publishers. "We've been ready to sell e-books for 10 years," she says. "[But] everybody still likes physical books." When it comes to potential infringement, she's more worried about abuse of POD (print-on-demand) machines that can quickly turn a digital file into a printed book for less than $10.
Alan Adler, a lawyer who reps the AAP, has scrutinized the Atiz Web site and tentatively concludes that it focuses on legal uses. His ire is reserved for Google's program to scan collections of libraries, and use the contents in its search indexes; the AAP has filed suit against the Google program.
But while the publishers worry about snippets of copyrighted works appearing in search engines, the real threat will emerge when some company produces the iPod of e-book readers, whether it's some evolution of Amazon's Kindle device or even an Apple production. (Ignore Steve Jobs's recent proclamation that e-readers make no sense because "people don't read anymore." He once said he didn't believe that people would watch video on tiny screens.) Eventually, electronic readers will become commonplace, creating a demand that won't be met by publisher-authorized releases of copy-protected digital books sold at similar prices to the bound volumes in stores. That's when the idea of ripping books might really catch on, presumably with cheaper, cooler scanners. "It will be inevitable," says Booppanon. "And then the book industry will follow what happened with the music industry." Rememberâ€”Napster happened in a snap.