A report presented to the European Commission this week urges EU member states to be more proactive in making a digital record of their cultural treasures.
Much of Europe's cultural heritage remains offline
In a new report published on Monday, the "three sages" of a Commission-appointed reflection group underscored the importance of putting more content of European libraries, archives and museums online by 2016.
In turn, that would encourage other companies to give Google Books - currently the prime digitizer of public domain material - a run for its money.
The team of experts from France, Germany and Belgium said digitization would not only ensure access to a rich cultural heritage, but would also offer potential economic benefits through public-private partnerships in areas including tourism, research and education.
At the heart of the group's suggestions is "Europeana," the EU's not-for-profit library of images, texts, sounds and videos.
Since its launch in 2008, the Commission-funded project promoting access to the "rich diversity of Europe's cultural and scientific heritage" has some created an archive of some 15 million items.
The "New Renaissance" report says that Europeana should be further developed as "the reference point for European culture content online," with each member state ensuring free access to digitized material through the portal.
In the beginning was the word: Google
Some observers say this move would provide an alternative to Google Books, which has digitized 15 million titles in the six years since its inception, and has a stated aim of putting every book in the world online.
A case for Google Books
Speaking at a press conference on Monday, one of the report's authors, Maurice C. Levy, said that although Google had been "essential in the process" of digitizing cultural material, it was not operating on a level playing field.
"We believe there is a lot of opportunity for new players to come and confront Google," he said, adding that the sheer volume of work to be done represents massive opportunities for entrepreneurs.
The commissioner responsible for education and culture, Androulla Vassiliou, agreed that culture and heritage in the digital age represent "a set of opportunities for European economies and societies."
Jonathan Purday, the senior communications advisor for Europeana, rejected any idea that the report's recommendations were trying to ensure that EU companies rather than Google be responsible for the digitization of European culture.
Google's mission to provide the world with information is well underway
"This is not cultural appropriation," Purday told Deutsche Welle, adding that there is a need for diverse approaches.
"There are 90 million book titles in European libraries, and more than 200 million man-made artifacts in museums, and it is good to offer people the widest possible access to them."
He says public-private partnerships are the best way forward.
Stefan Keuchel, spokesman for Google Germany told Deutsche Welle that free access to information is what the Internet giant is all about, and that it therefore embraces the prospect of other companies boarding the digitization bandwagon.
"People think we want a monopoly, but the opposite is the case," he said. "We welcome people who share our goal of providing access to knowledge."
Not hand-in-hand all the way
Although Europeana and Google Books share the same aim in that respect, their paths diverge on the more controversial issue of preferential use.
While public domain books accessed through the former can be reused, exported or integrated into the users own library, those digitized by Google are less of a free lunch.
EC President Jose Manuel Barroso announced Europeana in 2008
"The deal they sign with the organization for whom they are digitizing gives them exclusive rights for 15 years," Purday said, adding that under such contracts only Google and the owner of the material will be allowed to display it.
"Their material leaves the public domain," he added.
In order to give private-public partnerships the chance to recoup their costs, the report recommends reducing the period of preferential use to just seven years.
In a statement responding to the proposal, Google said it works out its own terms through conversation with its library partners, but added that it welcomes "any input in the continued discussions on finding the best way to support digitization of European cultural heritage."
Reporter: Tamsin Walker
Editor: Cyrus Farivar