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EU moves forward with online library plans

The European Commission’s plan to create a European Digital Library is a welcome one, according to the responses to a consultation on the initiative. But opinions are divided on how the copyright issues involved should be resolved.02 Mar 2006

The Commission announced in September that it wanted to put Europe’s cultural heritage on the internet by turning books, photos, records and films into a massive digital library.

If successful, the initiative will rival Google’s controversial library project, which takes the book collections of several research libraries – about 15 million books – and makes this content searchable online.

However, Google’s initiative has spawned several lawsuits from copyright holders whose books featured in libraries participating in the project. Copyright issues were therefore high on the agenda when the Commission launched a consultation on its plans.

According to the Commission, the responses have been largely positive, welcoming the initiative and viewing it as an opportunity to make Europe’s cultural heritage more accessible and usable on the internet. Inevitably, however, rightholders and cultural institutions were at odds as to whether the current copyright rules were adequate or whether changes would be needed.

The Commission does not need to change the rules for all works – it can still stock works in which copyrights have expired or where permission is granted by copyright holders, but there are administrative problems in obtaining this consent.

The responses show that rightholders are happy to rely on the existing rules, while content users and institutions indicate problems with the system, suggesting that maybe a “fair use” clause should be introduced, similar to the US system, or that there should be a “safe harbour” provision for indexing and preservation.

The lack of harmonisation of the exceptions and limitations in the Copyright Directive was also highlighted as a problem. Some respondents argue that this has led to the Directive being implemented differently in different Member States, a fact that would impact on an EU-wide digitisation project.

Nevertheless, despite the divisions, the Commission has been able to use the results to further define the practical set-up of the European Digital Library, which is planned to provide a highly visible, multilingual access point, dedicated to the digital resources of Europe’s cultural institutions.

It will build upon the TEL-infrastructure, currently the gateway to the catalogue records of collections in a number of national libraries, which also gives access to a range of digitised resources of the participating libraries. TEL, The European Library, was set up by members of the Conference of European National Librarians and received European Community funding in its early stage.

According to the Commission, by the end of 2006, the European Digital Library should encompass full collaboration among the national libraries in the EU.

This will then be expanded to archives and museums, resulting in two million books, films, photographs, manuscripts, and other cultural works being accessible through the European Digital Library by 2008. This figure will grow to at least six million by 2010, but is expected to be much higher as, by then, potentially every library, archive and museum in Europe will be able to link its digital content to the European Digital Library, says the Commission.

The Commission intends to present a proposal for a Recommendation to tackle barriers to digitisation and online accessibility by mid-2006.

Later this year, the Commission will unveil its strategy for digital libraries based on scientific and scholarly information and, before the end of the year, a Commission Communication on “Content Online” will address broader issues such as intellectual property rights management in the digital age.