"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," Internal Market Commissioner Charlie McCreevy and Information Society Commissioner Viviane Reding said in a joint statement, favouring "private-sector support" for this task "of Herculean proportions".
Google is at the forefront of the digital book business. According to its own figures, 10 million books have already been migrated from their original paper format into an electronic version, under its revolutionary Book Search project.
This colossal operation holds enormous promise for cultural heritage since it brings back to life works that were shelved in dusty libraries, difficult to access for average user. "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 addition, this 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 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.
According to figures provided by Google, 97% of the world book market concerns in-print books. Out-of-print or orphan books (for which the copyright holder is unknown) hold the remaining market share of 2-3%.
All that glitters is not gold
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.
The first concern regarding Google's project arises from this point. Having accumulated such an advantage over any possible competitor, will Google be in a monopolistic position in the nascent market of digitised old books?
European publishers, authors and booksellers largely agree that this would be the case creating new competition issues and potential devastating effects on some of the current business models. "Google would become the world 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 the prices it wants.
Publishers fret they will lose substantial revenues: "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.
A monopolistic situation in the books market has potentially terrible consequences for world culture, speakers at a hearing organised by the European Commission in Brussels pointed out, citing emerging risks of censorship. If you have a single distributor, it is easier for a state or a powerful interest group to block a book due to its content, so the argument goes.
Data protection questions arise as well, as with many other Google projects, from the search engine to its email service. The question of who is checking this enormous amount of personal data is frequently posed by Europeans.
Google responds that these are not real issues since it will not be in a monopolistic position. The company says it will guarantee access to its digital registry to every company interested in scanning and digitising books.
The thin line between out-of-print and in-print books
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.
European publishers have proposed a way to easily work out if a book is out-of-print or not. The system is called ARROW (Accessible Registries of Rights Information and Orphan Works) and is poised to become an alternative to Google Books itself, according to a statement published yesterday by the Federation of European Publishers (FEP).
EU vs. US access to culture
Europeans have another reason to complain about Google Books. If indeed Google does reach a settlement in the US, American users will be able to access thousands of European digitised books which are in European libraries and de facto not accessible to EU citizens.
The US deal includes European books under US copyright. Without a similar agreement in Europe, Europeans will have no access to their books, creating a cultural gap between the two sides of the Atlantic.
This is the reason why the Commission is supporting the project and pushing for harmonised copyright rules across EU countries. Current EU laws simply makes it impossible to translate the American settlement into the EU internal market. A cross-border agreement seems far away.