Way, way back (or, at least, a long time ago as Internet history goes), there was Project Gutenberg. It began in 1971, with project founder Michael Hart typing in the Declaration of Independence, and slowly expanded to include other historical documents and out-of-copyright literature.
In 1991, Project Gutenberg took its current form. Its initial goal was to add one book per month. In 2006, with the help of volunteers around the world, it saw the addition of an average of 400 books per month, according to the general FAQ.
(As a proud citizen of the Internet, I’m pleased to say I did my part. The book I helped to transcribe is number 769 of the collection: Okakura’s The Book of Tea.)
If you’re a more recent arrival to the Internet, you might not be familiar with Project Gutenberg, but chances are good that you’ll know about Google Books.
Google started with the same idea: making out-of-copyright books available online. They’ve expanded the concept to include out-of-print books, and have come to a settlement with publishers and authors about the distribution of out-of-print but in-copyright material, as well as the distribution of current in-copyright and in-print books, as well.
For Google’s summary of their service: http://books.google.com/googlebooks/agreement/
The New York Times has a good article about the Google settlement, and what it means for researchers, readers, and publishers.
I think that anything that grants access to literature and information, while still acknowledging and respecting the rights of the owners of that information, is a good thing. Do I think this will kill paper publishing? No. Not at all.
What do you think?