Culture & ideas Media and Multimedia

Digitisation: Google books revolution hard to put down

9 September 2009
El País Madrid

A rain of books is coming. "Language of birds", an installation by Dorka Keehn and Brian Goggin, San Francisco (Etats-Unis). Photo: V La / Flickr

A rain of books is coming. "Language of birds", an installation by Dorka Keehn and Brian Goggin, San Francisco (Etats-Unis). Photo: V La / Flickr

For some time now Google has been digitising vast numbers of books. This controversial initiative, assailed by publishers, booksellers and some EU national governments alike, has led the European Commission to call for up-to-date copyright legislation that will prove equal to the challenges of the digital age.

On 7 September the Commission rounded up the various players in European publishing (authors, publishers, booksellers, librarians, governments etc.) for a hearing to probe the European repercussions of the recent revenue-sharing settlement between Google Books’ free digital library and US publishers and authors. This controversial deal allows Google Books to digitize and market innumerable works all over the world that are either in the public domain (i.e. whose copyrights have expired) or orphans (bereft of clear-cut copyright owners).

While the deal has caused a hue and cry in Europe, including near-accusations of intellectual piracy, it has once again revealed the yawning gap between American agility and the phlegmatic sluggishness and fragmentation of the European way of doing things.

On 7 September, the Committee aligned itself with the American system, issuing a joint communiqué from the “Information Society and Media” and “Internal Market and Services” commissioners, which must have sounded like music of the spheres to Google executive ears. “Our aim is to blow away stale stereotypes that hindered debate in the past and focus on finding the best approach that today's technology will allow us to take in the future, while giving a new boost to cultural creation in the digital age,” announced commissioners Viviane Reding and Charlie McCreevy. In their view, moreover, the EU needs a new legal framework to catalyse the development of services similar to those made possible by Google’s recently clinched US books deal.

"The digitisation of books is a task of Herculean proportions which the public sector needs to guide,” say the commissioners, before opening the door to Google or whoever else dares take on the challenge, adding, however, that the undertaking “also needs private-sector support”.

The basic provisos are clear enough: respect for copyright and due compensation for creators, who are to be the main beneficiaries of public access to their digitised works. But then the Commissioners drop a ton of bricks: "We also need to take a hard look at the copyright system we have today in Europe. Is the present framework still fit for the digital age?”

"That is the question: to what extent does the European legal concept of copyright lend itself to digital exploitation?” concurs Corral Milagros, director of the Spanish National Library.

Is Google smashing the Berne convention?

The interests of the various parties are at odds here. The authors are more favourably disposed towards a technological innovation that will breathe new life into their works. "We authors of out-of-print books see our works arriving in a brand new market,” affirms writer and Google Books backer James Gleick. But publishers and booksellers fear the giant search engine’s incursion into the content market is liable to poach their business. Antonio Ávila of the Spanish Publishers and Booksellers Federation accuses Google of infringing copyrights and the Berne Convention by scanning books in the US without consulting the European rights holders beforehand. The French representative, from the Hachette Group, heartily concurs and predicts that France will fight to the finish to prevent such an arrangement from affecting French books and authors. European publishers argue that Google’s US books deal does not apply to Europe anyway.

Dan Clancy, Engineering Director for Google Books Search, who found himself in the hot seat at the 7 September hearing in Brussels, made a concession to publishers: he promised in a letter that Google Books would not scan any book that is marketed in Europe through conventional channels, even if it is not in commercial circulation in the United States. But that did not suffice to placate the publishers.