Google meeting with Gutenburg's attorneys

CNET News is reporting that Google's library scanning project is on (temporary?) hold, while they work out copyright issues with the publishers of all those nifty books.

Perhaps we might step back, and think a bit about how digital technology can transform our present economic models. In the old days, only a few writers could expect an audience, since the costs of reproducing and distributing their works were, well - costly. Today, these costs have largely dissipated - duplication and communication is (or can be) effectively free.

True, material goods (e.g., food, water) are still significantly constrained by physical limits (e.g., raw materials, transportation), and as such are likely to rely on economies of scale in order to produce low-cost items. This means that the conventionial incentive theory will likely hold for the bulk of human activities.

But as Pekka Himanen and others have argued, the "Hacker Ethic" fundamentally changes the economics of intellectual contribution. Lower reproduction and distribution costs mean we needn't always be trapped by the "no free lunch" law. The statistical middle can be strongly affected by the clever few. Some will have bad intentions, certainly - but was it ever any other way?

The key is that the beneficial efforts of relatively few can be shared by many - all we need to raise all boats is to encourage these open, altruistic models. After all, the ultimate purpose of economic life is not to generate private profit, but to improve the human condition (sometimes through private profit, sometimes not).

Food for thought, no?

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