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).
Europe questions intellectual property rights
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.