Bringing the world's lost books back to life

Monday, September 7, 2009 | 12:03 PM

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Today I am attending the European Commission's information hearing in Brussels on Google Books's agreement with American authors and publishers. This offers us a wonderful opportunity to clear up misunderstandings and further explain the opportunities offered by the US Agreement. All of us, on both sides of the Atlantic share the same crucial goal - to bring millions of lost books back to life.

If an American court approves, readers in the U.S. will be able for the first time to search, preview and buy online access to a great number of out-of-print books that were scanned as part of Google Book Search. A new non-profit registry will be set up to locate these in copyright but difficult to find books' rights holders and collect and distribute revenues to authors and publishers.

This hearing shows that European libraries, authors, publishers and users are grappling with the same issue of how to open up access to the world of knowledge contained in books. In recent weeks, we noted several important measures of support. We are already working successfully with libraries around the world, including in France, Belgium, the UK, Switzerland, Germany and Spain, insuring that our digital library includes works over 100 languages. I was particularly pleased to hear our Ghent Library Partner Sylvia van Peteghem talking about how together we have worked to allow viewers from all over the world access to her institution's priceless public domain collection. Last week, Mario Resca, General Director of the Italian Ministry of Culture, expressed a desire to partner with us to find ways on best valuing the Italian public domain books collection. Support from the Italian authorities represents an important step forward to demonstrating how our Books project can further benefit Europe.

While anybody is allowed to digitise and distribute out of copyright, so called public domain works, pose no legal problem free of charge or for a fee, what's really at stake are the fate of the vast majority of books -- by some estimate up to 80 percent of the total - which are in copyright out of print and hard to locate. These works are not sold through bookstores or held on most library shelves, and yet represent an important repository of the world's knowledge and culture. Often it is difficult to identify or locate the copyright holder. If the author has died, who holds his rights, his wife, children or another relative?

The agreement announced in October 2008 between Google and a broad class of copyright holders in the United States will dramatically expand access to out-of-print books, creating new revenue opportunities for authors and publishers. The new registry should help reduce the number of in-copyright works whose owners cannot be identified or found because authors will have a concrete economic incentive to come forward, claim their works and then earn money. For books that are in-print, the agreement would offer new distribution opportunities to copyright holders in the United States.

European authors and publishers whose books have been scanned from an American library may benefit from the new revenue that will come as American readers discover and purchase their books. They can register with the new registry to control and profit from online access to their books, or, just like American authors, they can choose to opt out. The registry will also benefit rightsholders by helping potential licensors for Europe reach out to rightsholders and negotiate agreements to license works in the EU. But no readers outside of the United States will reap the benefits American readers will see-- because the agreement is under U.S. law, it can by nature only govern what happens within the U.S.

In this context, we are delighted to see that the EU Commissioner for Information Society and Media Viviane Reding recently added her voice to the debate welcoming calling for Europe to act. "Google Books is a commercial project developed by an important player," she said. "It is good to see that new business models are evolving which could allow bringing more content to an increasing number of consumers." We agree. The bottom line conclusion from today's hearing is clear and straightforward: Europeans, not just Americans, should be empowered to rediscover long lost books.

Posted by Daniel Clancy, Engineering Director


Michael W. said...

Daniel, you'd do well to read the copyright laws of a few nations or, even better, the Berne Convention, signed by 164 countries, including the U.S. An author's right to determine if and how his work is published is virtually absolute. No distinction in laws exists over whether a book is in-print or not, easily available or virtually impossible to obtain. If you don't understand that, you don't understand copyright law.

There's no misunderstanding between Europe and Google. Europe understands copyright law and what Google intends to do quite well. In contrast, Google's leadership either doesn't understand copyright law or it finds it convenient to pretend that the law is something other than what it is.

The German government's recently filed objection illustrates that when it notes: "The opt out mechanism [of the settlement] stands on its head the most fundamental and essential underlying principal of international copyright law and the laws of Germany -- exclusivity. Under both U.S. and German copyright law, no one may use an author's intellectual property without permission."

A close analogy can be drawn between the sanctity of an author's work and the sanctity of his home. As William Pit once eloquently observed of English law:

"“The poorest man may in his cottage bid defiance to all the force of the Crown. It may be frail—its roof may shake—the wind may blow through it—the storm may enter—the rain may enter—but the King of England cannot enter: all his forces dare not cross the threshold of that ruined tenement.”

In a similar fashion, the poorest writer in the most impoverished of country may bid defiance to Google and all its grand schemes. Google may not display his written labors without his express written permission. That's the law in 164 countries, including the United States.

--Michael W. Perry, Seattle

patricia said...

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as286 said...

Michael, it is very unlikely that Berne even applies to the Settlement, considering that it is not a State-imposed limitation or formality. See Ricketson/Ginsburg "International Copyright and Neighbouring Rights" (OUP 2006) for extensive comments on Berne's various aspects.

Having said that, you are right in claiming that it is a violation of copyright. There would not have been a settlement if it were not. The issue, of course, is how they intend to proceed in Europe.

A. Savin, Copenahagen


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Curtis said...

copyrights were never given by a law or a government but were given by the creator or through evolution as the reader chooses to believe.
Eat this fruit and have ultimate knowledge is the first immoral temptation near the beginning of one ancient legend.

Click this link and access all the knowledge of humanity's libraries is the immoral temptation of copyright laws today.