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Digitalizing books

November 28, 2009

European Union ministers have agreed to move forward with plans to counter plans by Internet giant Google to create an immense digital library. They say the work should not be handled by the private sector alone.

A scanner passes over a book at the University of Michigan
EU ministers say book digitization should not be a private undertakingImage: AP

EU ministers meeting in Brussels on Friday, November 27, said they wanted to create a bloc-wide project to digitize books, starting with the formation of a committee to work out a blueprint for the plan.

French Culture Minister Frederic Mitterrand told French newspaper Journal du Dimanche that the digital archiving of literature should not be a task solely for private business, and that governments should play a part in any such initiative.

"The committee will be asked to bring together national views and draw up a joint position," he told the newspaper.

"It's not up to this or that private group to decide policy on an issue as important as the digitization of our global heritage. I'm not going to leave this issue up to simple laissez-faire," he added.

An expanded European digital library would be an answer to Google Books, which aims to digitize millions of books and documents from universities and libraries from around the world.

The EU already has a digital library, called Europeana, which went live in November 2008, but the platform has been plagued by a number of technical and usability issues.

Charges of stolen heritage

Two men work on laptops in front of Google logo
Google has paid out millions of dollars during the projectImage: AP

European critics have attacked the Google project for what they say is the exploitation of the continent's literary heritage, as well as on antitrust, copyright and privacy grounds.

Google has already been taken to court in France over accusations it was illegally reproducing and distributing copyrighted material as part of its project.

In September, German publishers decried the European Commission's lack of action in forcing Google to track down copyright holders before digitizing their work.

A hearing in the US has been set for February 18 on a revised legal settlement between Google and US authors and publishers that would allow the search engine giant to continue scanning and selling books online.

The revised deal would limit Google to digitizing books registered with the US Copyright Office by January 5, 2009, or published in Australia, Britain, Canada or the United States.

The deal has been heavily criticized by organization VG Wort, which upholds the rights of authors in Germany.

"If the new arrangement proposal is approved it will lead to considerable legal difficulties for German authors and publishing companies," the body said in a statement after meeting in Munich on Friday.

It added that many German authors and publishers would be unable to learn for sure whether their books, particularly those published prior to 1978, were covered under the proposal.


Editor: Stephanie Siek