Digital Library Controversy: Google Gives Ground at EU Hearing

Google representatives have met with EU officials and opponents of its massive digital library project to discuss how a settlement in the US will affect European authors. During the meeting, Google unveiled new steps meant to ease European worries. But Germany's justice minister says the arrangement still "just doesn't work."

On Monday, Europeans had a chance to voice their opinions about the Google Books digital library project in front of the European Commission. Zoom
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On Monday, Europeans had a chance to voice their opinions about the Google Books digital library project in front of the European Commission.

At a hearing hosted Monday in Brussels by the European Commission, Google tried to calm fears of European book publishers and authors worried about whether the company's massive book-scanning project will violate their intellectual property rights.

In particular, publishers and authors are opposed to the online search giant's "Google Books" digital library project, which has already scanned approximately 10 million books in 40 languages from a number of major American libraries to make them available for online viewing. The project aims to make money by selling digital versions to US customers of hard-to-find books that are still under copyright. Scanned items that are out of copyright or whose authors have declined payment will be available online free of charge. Likewise, although the project does not involve books that are covered by copyright outside the US, it will include books by foreign authors -- many in translation -- that have gone out-of-print there.

The company has already reached a settlement with US authors and publishers that covers all books unless the copyright holder opts out of the arrangement. According to the settlement, authors who opt to have their works included in the project will be paid $60 ($42) per book. The settlement has not gone into effect yet, however, as it is still being reviewed by the US Department of Justice. A federal court is scheduled to rule on the agreement on Oct. 7.

Monday's meeting was summoned to allow critics and supporters of the project to voice their opinions and discuss how the US settlement would affect European authors before the European Commission. At it, Google representatives pledged to allow foreign authors and publishers to appoint two representatives to the board of the Books Rights Registry, the organization charged with overseeing the management of US copyrights affected by the project.

The company also tried to placate European publishers by saying that it would only display out-of-print translations of works that were still commercially available in Europe with the approval of their copyright holders. It also pledged to make greater efforts to ensure that books are truly out-of-print before making them available in digital form.

Google defended its project by stressing how it would help people looking for out-of-print works. "We have seen a democratization of access to online information," said Dan Clancy, the architect of the program. "You can discover information which you did not know was there. It's important that these books aren't left behind."

A Messy State of Affairs

The EU already has a similar project, Europeana, which has already scanned 4.6 million books, maps, photos, film clips and newspapers. But the project has been much slower than the Google one, which has raised fears among European publishers, libraries and copyright holders that Google's project will get so far ahead of the European one that it will create a de facto monopoly for digital access.

At Monday's meeting, however, the European Commission was quick to point out that one of the reasons for the project's slow pace was the fact that each of the EU's 27 member states has its own copyright laws. "We also need to take a hard look at the copyright system we have in Europe," the commission said, according to the Associated Press. It also called for new copyright rules that would allow more books to be scanned, noting that only 1 percent of the books in the national libraries of EU countries had been digitally scanned.

This complicated situation has led Google to decide that it will try to seek individual deals with various European copyright groups, rather than pursuing an overarching deal like the one awaiting approval in the United States.

Strong German Opposition

The project has been the object of heated attack in Germany. For example, in April, a group of 1,300 German authors petitioned German politicians to wage "a resolute defense, with all the means at their disposal" to protect intellectual property rights.

German Justice Minister Brigitte Zypries has been leading resistance to the project in Germany. In Monday's edition of the daily Stuttgarter Nachrichten, Zypries accused Google of behaving in a "simply unlawful" way. "Google says that we're going to scan things first, creating a fait accompli, and if that bothers the copyright holder, then he or she can let us know," Zypries said. "That just doesn't work."

Zypries went on to point out what she saw as potential changes in the future that could make Google's plan less benign than it now seems, such as if the company decided to sell the project's rights to another entity.

Likewise, she joined the chorus of people complaining about potential antitrust issues, which includes Google's Internet rivals Microsoft, Yahoo and Amazon. "We can't let the inventory of books in the world fall into the hands of a monopolist who can dictate prices and decide who has access to particular books," she said.

Still, others see many potential benefits in the project. "For us who are authors of out-of-print books, it brings our work to a whole new audience," author James Gleick told the hearing, according to Reuters. And Sylvia Van Peteghem, the chief librarian of Belgium's Ghent University, praised Google's project for bringing about "a revival of old books," according to the Associated Press.

jtw -- with wire reports

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