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EU calls for European solution to book digitisation

The European Commission has called for a 'European' solution to the problem of how to negotiate copyright while digitising the continent's books as it continues meetings and hearings on the issue.08 Sep 2009

While the announcement may be read as a swipe at US-based Google, two European Commissioners admitted that there was a role for private investment and companies in digitising Europe's books.

Google Books is the most advanced and controversial proposal for digitising books and the plan will face a US court hearing later this month to determine if a settlement with authors' groups is fair.

Google is participating in this week's EU meetings and has confirmed that if its Google Books settlement goes ahead the service will not be available in the EU because it is governed only by US law.

"A better understanding of the interests involved will help the Commission to define a truly European solution in the interest of European consumers," said a joint statement by Information Society Commissioner Viviane Reding and Internal Markets Commissioner Charlie McCreevy.

"We believe that such a European solution should breathe fresh life into this issue and could give every citizen with an internet connection access to millions of books that today lie hidden on dusty shelves," they said.

"Digitisation of books is a task of Herculean proportions which the public sector needs to guide, but where it also needs private-sector support," the pair said. "It is therefore time to recognise that partnerships between public and private bodies can combine the potential of new technologies and private investments with the rich collections of public institutions built up over the centuries. If we are too slow to go digital, Europe's culture could suffer in the future."

Google announced that it had been working with libraries in the UK, France, Belgium and with the Italian government. "Support from the Italian authorities represents an important step forward to demonstrating how our Books project can further benefit Europe," said Google's engineering director Daniel Clancy.

Google also said that although EU authors may profit from the service, Google Books would not be available outside of the US.

"European authors and publishers whose books have been scanned from an American library may benefit from the new revenue that will come as American readers discover and purchase their books," said Clancy. "They can register with the new registry to control and profit from online access to their books, or, just like American authors, they can choose to opt out…[N]o readers outside of the United States will reap the benefits American readers will see because the agreement is under US law, it can by nature only govern what happens within the US."

Google has agreed a $125 million settlement with the US Authors Guild to compensate writers for the scanning of out-of-print books. It has also agreed a revenue share on any earnings from sales of the books through its system.

Opponents of the Google approach and deal voiced their opposition to it in Brussels yesterday.

“There is a genuine desire to find solutions but the proposed settlement is not the right approach,” said David Wood, legal counsel to the Initiative for a Competitive Online Marketplace, said at a briefing. “We need solutions which are clear and intelligible as opposed to complex and opaque, recognise the balance between users and rights holders, and promote competition in online services."

“As things stand, the proposed settlement will create a de facto monopoly for digital access to millions of works, including many European works,” he said.

“We should not let a single US entity dictate an international model of rights recording,” said Peter Brantley of the Internet Archive and Open Book Alliance at the same briefing.

The Commission said it would hear more views on the issue today.