The EU has been busy scanning books and documents to improve citizens' access to culture and history, but its efforts have been overshadowed by Google's commercial push to digitise Europe's book heritage.

Overview

In autumn 2008, the EU launched its own Internet library, 'Europeana', giving access to hundreds of thousands of books, many of which are rare or out-of-print altogether (EurActiv 21/11/08). Paintings, music, maps, manuscripts and newspapers were also put online. 

The portal, which hosts some two million 'digitised objects' from all 27 member states contributed by around 1,000 cultural institutions, initially collapsed amid massive interest and millions of hits, but it has functioned normally since December 2008. 

Moreover on 16 October 2009, the European Commission launched another digital library, the 'EU Bookshop' (EurActiv 20/10/09). 

The new website hosts an electronic library containing 12 million scanned pages from over 110,000 historical EU publications. 

The site, which users can access for free, features all publications edited by the EU's Publications Office on behalf of the European institutions, agencies and other associated bodies since 1952.   

Digitisation projects are being pursued by the private sector too. For example, Google Book Search allows users to view books or extracts of millions of books online after having conducted a keyword-based search. Seven million titles were covered by the service as of April 2009, and the database is expected to continue to grow as time goes by. 

Books digitised by the service include titles available in the public domain, copyrighted material reproduced with the permission of the rights holder, and out-of-print works. 

Rights holders who do not want their works included in the project must contact Google themselves to opt-out of it, while Google itself employs a variety of security measures to protect copyrighted material, primarily by limiting the number of viewable pages. 

In a deal struck with the Authors Guild and the Association of American Publishers in October 2008, Google agreed to pay $125 million to create a Book Rights Registry, where authors and publishers can register works and be compensated by institutional subscriptions or book sales. 

The US Justice Department is now looking into this settlement. Last May, EU countries asked the European Commission to investigate the economic implications of Google Books amid fears that it will harm the European publishing industry. 

Issues

Growing market for digital book readers

With e-books and other digitised media growing in popularity, many companies are seeking to profit from the shift from print to digital.

Amazon became one of the first firms to move by developing Kindle, a hardware and software platform for displaying e-books available in over 100 countries.

Three pocket-sized Amazon Kindle devices support the software, while iPhone users can download the 'Kindle for iPhone' application.

Kindle devices allow users to read e-books on the move, without the need for a computer. 

Amazon's competitors in the e-book reader market include the Sony Reader and a Barnes & Noble device.

Europe worried about Google Books

The European Commission has welcomed Google's plans to digitise the world's heritage of books, but concerns abound about the project's potential to give the US giant a monopoly over access to digitised works, copyright, data protection and censorship control. 

Many countries are fearful that Google Books will harm the European publishing industry. Indeed, an EU competition ministers meeting in Brussels in May asked the Commission to investigate the economic implications of the project (EurActiv 27/05/09). 

Some member states, including France and Germany, have expressed fears that Google Books does not adequately respect European law on the protection of authors' rights. 

Member states are aware of the importance of the Google Book Search issue, and the right balance must be struck between supporting a "good initiative" which improves citizens' access to cultural and research material on the one hand, and protecting intellectual property rights on the other, one source explained. 

Responding to the European developments, Google expressed willingness to engage in "constructive dialogue" with European copyright holders and pointed to a settlement in the US with the American Author's Guild as having given access to millions of books while simultaneously "creating a new market for authors".  A settlement between the Guild and Google created a Book Rights Registry whereby authors could register their works and benefit from the digital sales.  

Out-of-print books hard to define

The operation should not harm the existing market of digital books, since it involves only books that are "not commercially available," argues Google. In other words, an in-print book on sale in a highstreet bookshop will not be available on Google Books. 

The US giant has committed itself to digitising only books which are not printed anymore, "de facto creating a new market" for works which otherwise would have been left in unaccessible libraries, returning no financial gain to their authors. 

Although of little commercial value, out-of-print and orphan books represent 90% of European libraries' collections and the largest proportion of global works. It is a potentially enormous market which, if brought to the surface, could return enormous profits and is likely to shift current market share figures. 

European publishers, authors and booksellers largely agree that this would have potentially devastating effects on some of the current business models. "Google would become the world's de facto digital bookseller," warned Fran Dubruille of the European Booksellers' Federation, which represents 20,000 EU booksellers. 

Authors fear that Google will be able to impose whatever prices it wants. Google insists that its project concerns only "not commercially available books". But "databases with in-print books are not updated," warned Owen Atkinson of the British Authors' Collecting Society. This means that Google can digitise books which are still available in bookshops. "We checked 30,000 books digitised by Google and 10% were in-print," he said. 

Moreover, "books are in- and out-of-print according to demand and especially when they are written in minority languages," underlined Andrej Savin of the Copenhagen Business School. "The concept of commercial availability is hard to define," acknowledged even Dan Clancy, Google's engineering director. 

Towards common European rules 

Brussels called on member states to make more of an effort to digitise books, in order to make them available to a wider public. According to EU figures, only 5% of all digital books are available in the recently-established and free-to-access EU library Europeana.

Almost half of these come from France, while other countries with massive libraries, such as Italy, Greece, the UK or Spain, lag far behind in this process. To speed up inclusion, EU Information Society Commissioner Viviane Reding is welcoming public-private partnerships and showing a very positive stance towards initiatives pursued by US giant Google. 

Reding, who looks poised to be re-appointed for a second consecutive mandate in her current role (EurActiv 23/06/09), underlined the need to modernise EU copyright rules on libraries. 

"We should create a modern set of European rules that encourage the digitisation of books," she said at a July 2009 conference in Brussels. "More than 90% of books in Europe's national libraries are no longer commercially available, because they are either out of print or orphan works." 

"The creation of a Europe-wide public registry for such works could stimulate private investment in digitisation, while ensuring that authors get fair remuneration also in the digital world," she said. 

"This would also help to end the present, rather ideological debate about Google Books. I do understand the fears of many publishers and libraries facing the market power of Google. But I also share the frustrations of many Internet companies which would like to offer interesting business models in this field, but cannot do so because of the fragmented regulatory system in Europe," Reding added. 

An EU historical database

A new service, launched on 16 October 2009, makes the last sixty years of European history available free of charge in its digital 'EU Bookshop'. The European Commission's Publications Office has scanned more than 110,000 EU publications including speeches, treaties and publications from the EU institutions, agencies and other bodies dating back to 1952 (EurActiv 20/10/09).  

The initiative was borne out of a saturation of the Publications Office's PDF-on-demand service wherein users could request publications to be retrieved from the archives and scanned as needed. Total PDF downloads jumped from just 65,000 in 2008 to an expected 230,000 per month for 2009.

Cut-off date for copyrighted books? 

In its communication on digitising books, Reding is pushing for easier and more harmonised EU rules on copyrighted books, in order to facilitate the digitisation and possible sale of out-of-print and orphan works (of which the author is unknown). 

In order to do so, the commissioner is considering introducing a cut-off date for claiming rights over old books, taking as an example US legislation on the issue. Both in the EU and in the US, a book remains under copyright for 70 years after the death of its author. But the US foresees a cut-off year for the application of these provisions. All works published before 1923 are indeed publicly available. 

"Pragmatic use of a cut-off date […] would impose a lower threshold for diligent search for works from before a certain date," reads the EU document.

Commission backs permission-based system

To address copyright concerns in the digital age, publishers themselves have developed and support ACAP (Automated Content Access Protocol), a permission-based solution allowing any content provider to express what can or cannot be done with their online content.

ACAP, a non-proprietary permissions tool putting content owners in control of their online content, is supported by the European Commission. 

A statement on ACAP's website says it is "destined to become the universal permissions protocol on the Internet, an open, non-proprietary standard through which content owners can communicate permissions for access and use to online intermediaries".

Who's next in dealing with copyright? 

Behind the issue within the Commission on how to deal with Google Books looms a much deeper quarrel over who will deal with copyright issues in the next EU executive. 

Currently such responsibility sits in the internal market portfolio, but a likely reshuffle of competencies within the Commission could put it in the hands of a stronger information society commissioner, a role coveted by Reding (EurActiv 23/06/09). 

However, France is fiercely fighting for the internal market portfolio, which currently also includes the hot dossier of financial services. The strength of the French cultural industry, which France's President Nicolas Sarkozy has defended on many occasions, is another good reason for Paris to fight for the internal market file. 

The destiny of the Google Books project is thus clearly linked to the identity of the new commissioner. Reding has shown support for it, but a French commissioner would obviously be less keen on the idea. 

Positions

Google's director of book partnerships in Europe, Santiago de la Mora, said greater digitisation offered a "win-win-win" situation for all parties involved: authors would have a wider opportunity to showcase their work, Google would have access to a substantially wider selection of books and users would have more access to a broader spectrum of works. 

"Google's mission is to organise the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful," said Sergey Brin, co-founder and president of technology at Google. After settling legal proceedings in the US last year, Brin wrote on the company's blog that "we hope and expect that this leap forward with our friends and partners in the publishing industry is just the first of many". 

Hailing the Google Books project, EU Internal Market Commissioner Charlie McCreevy and Information Society Commissioner Viviane Reding said in a joint statement that "Europe is facing a very important cultural and economic challenge: only some 1% of the books in Europe's national libraries have been digitised so far, leaving an enormous task ahead of us, but also opening up new cultural and market opportunities". 

Both commissioners stressed the importance of private-sector support for this task "of Herculean proportions". 

Publishers fret they will lose substantial revenues as a result of Google Books. "If a copy of an English-language book published in Europe finds its way to a US library, Google could scan it even if the rights haven't been sold for the US market, possibly harming the publisher's own opportunities to sell those rights in future," argues Angela Mills-Wade of the European Publishers Council

Speaking out in support of Google's book project, James Gleick, author and member of the board of the American Authors' Guild, said: "All too many books have fallen into a kind of limbo: protected by copyright but out of print. Their publishers had given up on them. They existed at libraries and used booksellers but otherwise had left the playing field." 

The Federation of European Publishers, representing 26 national publishers, insists that the settlement between Google and the Authors Guild does not serve as a model for Europe and intends to promote "consumer-friendly models based on cultural diversity, competition and existing copyright rules in Europe". FEP supports Europeana as a single access point for Europe's cultural content alongside initiatives such as Libreka! in Germany and Gallica2 in France. 

"It's a revival of old books," said Sylvia Van Peteghem  of Ghent University Library, one of those in Europe to have struck a deal with Google to have their works digitised.

In principal IFLA, an international library and information services union, welcomes Google's contribution to broadening public access to digitised books "as an advancement of learning and human development" yet worries about the territorial limits of the settlement: "If Google is not willing or able to reach agreements with rights holders in other countries, the consequence will be ane ever-widening inequality in access to books in digital format."

"The management of content and rights in the digital age has become one of the key challenges facing all content creators. Our content is our product/ our value, and if the way it is managed and exploited is determined more by third parties than by ourselves, then we are simply putting a lot of trust and a lot of risk in their hands," said ACAP (Automated Content Access Protocol) Chairman and World Association of Newspapers CEO Gavin O'Reilly

"Being ACAP-enabled says to the world 'I claim my intellectual propery right over this content," O'Reilly added.  

Hailing the launch of the 'EU Bookshop' website, EU Multilingualism Commissioner Leonard Orban told AFP that "with the digital library, we have total transparency" of EU legislative and cultural publications, adding: "No-one can complain now of problems consulting legislative texts and associated documents."

"The digital library frees the memory of the European Union tied to paper since its beginning," Orban said in a statement, adding: "The millions of pages now accessible to everyone in the 23 official languages demonstrate the continued commitment of the European Union to preserving and encouraging the history of the Union in its linguistic diversity." 

Timeline

  • Oct. 2008: Google strikes deal with the Authors Guild and the Association of American Publishers, agreeing to pay $125m to create a book rights registry. 
  • Nov. 2008: EU launches its digital library, Europeana.
  • 7 Sept. 2009: EU hearing on Google Books. 
  • 14-18 Oct. 2009: Frankfurt Book Fair.
  • 16 Oct. 2009: Launch of EU Bookshop.
  • By 2010: Commission aims to make 10 million digitised works available on Europeana.