EU to give Google a run for its money


If the European Commission has its way then all of Europe's cultural heritage will be online by 2016, in a move that could rival Google's burgeoning digital books business.

A report written for the European Commission by an advertising guru, a Belgian author and a top library executive recommends public-private partnerships to boost the digitisation of the EU's libraries, museums and archives. The report by the three 'wise men' estimates that the entire feat would set the bloc back by about €100bn.

More controversially, the report "strongly encourages bringing more private investments and companies into the digitisation arena," which is currently dominated by number one search engine Google.

"It is not good for competition to have only one player on the ground," said Maurice Levy, a top advertising executive and CEO of Publicis, an advertising agency, commenting on Google's monopoly. 

"We believe in fair competition and want to encourage more European actors to participate," added Androulla Vassilou, the EU's commissioner for education and culture.

The report also touted Europeana – the EU's online library launched in 2008 –  as the main reference point for all of the EU's digitised works.

"Member states must ensure that all material digitised with public funding is available on the site and bring all their public domain masterpieces into Europeana by 2016," read a statement from the European Commission yesterday.

Google and Europeana have been at loggerheads since the web firm launched its digital books business in 2004.

After lengthy talks, Google agreed to shorten its exclusivity agreements with libraries – the time period that a library cannot commercially reuse the Google scans – from twenty-five years to fifteen years.

Yesterday's report raised eyebrows by proposing an even shorter seven-year exclusivity clause.

"This period should allow the private partner to recoup its investment," reads the report.

Levy also emphasised that players should avoid duplicating digital content at all costs and that a "deposit" – or scan – of books in one country should be accessible by all member states via Europeana.

Google said it had no objections to sharing its scans with Europeana. A spokesperson for the company in Brussels pointed to a partnership with the University of Ghent, which had also found its way into the Europeana database.

"Libraries are free to share their digitised catalogues with public digitisation initiatives, like Europeana," the spokesperson added. 


The reflection group ('Comité des sages') on the digitisation of cultural heritage was set up in April 2010 to come up with recommendations on how best to speed up the digitisation, online accessibility and preservation of cultural works across Europe.

It was asked to look at how to fund digitisation, including the possibilities and conditions for public-private partnerships. It was also asked to address copyright issues and licensing practices to facilitate the digitisation of copyrighted material – in particular out-of-print works and so-called 'orphan works', which represent a large part of Europe's collections.

The group consists of three 'wise men': Maurice Lévy (chairman and chief executive officer of French advertising and communications company Publicis), Elisabeth Niggemann (director-general of the German National Library and chair of the Europeana Foundation) and Jacques De Decker (author and permanent secretary of the Royal Academy of French Language and Literature in Belgium).

Currently, Google digitises only public domain material in Europe that was printed before 1870. Since the 2004 launch of Google Books, the company claims to have digitised more than 15 million books worldwide.

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