Commuters in Japan already anger bookstore owners and newsagents by using existing cellphone software to try to take snapshots of newspaper and magazine articles to finish reading on the train to work.
This is only possible because some phones now offer very rudimentary optical character recognition (OCR) software which allows small amounts of text to be captured and digitised from images.
But with the new software entire documents can be captured. As a page is being scanned the OCR software takes dozens of still images of the page and effectively merges them together using the outline of the page as a reference guide. The software can also detect the curvature of the page and correct any distortion so caused, enabling even the areas near the binding to be scanned clearly.
Using the new software with a 1-megapixel camera held at least 20 centimetres away, an A4 sized page takes about 3 to 5 seconds to scan. This produces between 21 and 35 images which the software merges together to extract the text and record any images.
“The goal of our research is to enable mobile phones to be used as portable faxes or scanners that can be used any time,” an NEC spokesman told New Scientist.
But the concern now is that this technology will catapult the publishing industry into a copyright furore similar to that which has gripped the recording industry in recent years.
“There’s no easy solution,” says Andrew Yates, intellectual property adviser to the UK’s Periodical Publisher’s Association in London.
“The music industry has been struggling with this for some time,” he says. But with music the issue is whether or not you allow people to copy music they have already purchased, says Yates.
With print publishing the situation appears to be even more intractable because the new software will make it possible to make copies without even purchasing the original, he says.
Licensing agreements may be one option he says. But also people will have to learn that certain rules of conduct still apply. “It is true that this technology may cause copyright issues if it were to be used in an unorthodox way,” says the NEC spokesman. But NEC would never encourage such behaviour, he adds.
According to NEC, their software is designed to sound an alarm when being used, to avoid any copyright conflicts. The company claims that any attempts to mute the device somehow or plug in headphones will not affect the audibility of this alarm.
NEC and NAIST say they do not plan to commercialise their software for three years.