Few people doubt that at some point in the indefinite future, all information will be digitised. But the process of converting the uncounted millions of existing books has always seemed so slow, expensive and laborious that it was never clear who would do it and why.
Now Google has stepped forward and said it'll be digitising part or all of some major college libraries. Why? Because it can. Furthermore, the projects -- in conjunction with four American universities and Oxford -- will result in data available freely to all. Of course, Google will want to make money out of it somehow, but the thinking seems to be that this will come from encouraging a rich environment of worthwhile information online.
Google's also developed new scanning technology: it's being quiet about this, but doubtless it's got its eye on the universe of corporate paper records. Meanwhile, we get the benefit of several million books over the next few years. I'm prone to hyperbole, but universal access to knowledge -- at least, the potential of universal access -- must count alongside universal literacy and the freedom of the press as among the most significant landmarks in the history of human knowledge.
It's not all gravy: all these books will all be out of copyright, of course. The cold hand of the ever-extending IP law ensures that stuff that falls within the copyright retention period cannot easily be uploaded: this will include most books that people will actually want to read and which will be most useful. So far this chilling effect has been tolerated, but the pressure on copyright owners and those who make the laws can only increase as more and more information finds its way online.
It shouldn't be impossible. After all, libraries -- generally considered a good thing -- came into existence and let people read books in copyright without too many restrictions. That could be a role for DRM that's not evil: instead of preventing people from reading things, it will allow them to do so, for free, by replicating various library rules. If you can check out a maximum of four titles at most, for example, with a restriction on length of 'loan' and reasonable-use rules on excerpting, then an online library will work in the same way as the physical one.
If Microsoft wants to keep up with Google, it could do worse than employ its considerable lobbying powers and resources to get the debate on copyright moved on in this direction.