Old books only in European Digital Library
The EU wants to digitalise and online the vast volumes of cultural works in member state libraries to make them accessible to all, but unless the issue of copyright and intellectual property rights are solved, the European Digital Library may consist only of books and journals published before the 1920s.
The European Commission in August urged the 25 EU member states to speed up and co-operate on the setting up of a European-wide digital library.
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In its recommendation, Brussels called on governments to deal with obstacles such as copyright questions and reasons for delays in the digitalisation of materials, which include books, journals, newspapers, photographs, museum objects, films and other cultural works.
The two main incentives for the digitalisation move are the preservation of cultural heritage and academic research.
"Each year, hundreds of works in Europe's libraries are destroyed by old age," says commission IT spokesman Martin Selmayr.
The aim is to have at least 2 million cultural works accessible via the European Digital Library by 2008, and at least six million volumes by 2010.
Will living authors see their work online?
But until a solution is found, only volumes already in the public domain - works no longer covered by intellectual property rights - will be available online.
Literary, dramatic, musical and artistic works are covered by intellectual property rights for the lifetime of the author plus a period of 70 years from the end of the year in which the author dies.
This means works being digitalised for the library will mainly be from before the 1920s unless the issue of intellectual property rights is dealt with.
"This is one of the main topics in all discussions going on at the moment," says Britta Woldering of Deutsche Nationalbibliothek and CENL – a group of national librarians.
"The issue of copyright is the biggest barrier for digitalisation," she said.
Ms Woldering said many libraries with digitalised works could only show them in their own reading rooms. "It's like keeping them in a black box, which is ridiculous if you think how many readers they could reach online," she noted.
The Deutsche Nationalbibliothek is following Europe's plans for copyright and intellectual property rights very closely. The relatively new library dates from 1913 with most of the collection still very much under copyright.
"For recent content, copyright is an issue," Mr Selmayr admitted. "Only by agreements between the rights holders will it work out, but there is no one-size-fit-all solution for this."
"We need to protect the rights of the authors because otherwise there will be no authors," he said.
However, the European Publishers Council (EPC) does not share the view that intellectual property rights are an obstruction to the commission initiative.
"Copyright and related rights are not legislative barriers," says Angela Mills Wade from the EPC. "On the contrary, they are enablers which make it possible for rights creators - the source of Europe's cultural heritage - to make works available."
But she adds that the digitisation of works should only occur if they are already in the public domain and/or with the consent of the rights holder and under terms and agreed by the publishers.
Authors fear being hailed as the bad guys
"Some even question the very concept of copyright, implying that authors are standing in the way of progress and the free flow of information," Trond Andreassen, head of the European writers congress, wrote in a recommendation to the commission at the beginning of the year.
"As writers, we need copyright and the incentive, both moral and financial, it gives to keep us writing," he added.
At the same time, he also underlined the importance of having recent work included in the digital library. "Authors want their works to be read and used."
A ‘loose-fitting' EU copyright directive from 2001 has meant that the law has been interpreted differently by the member states, leading to differing copyright laws in the 25 EU countries.
A committee working on how to best achieve a digital library was set up earlier this year specifically to deal with copyright issues in relation to digital libraries between member states and the different players.
The European digital library is set to develop around the already existing portal of The European Library's (TEL) infrastructure, which is currently a gateway to the catalogues in a number of EU national libraries.
The aim of the project is to achieve a portal to the digitised cultural works of Europe's cultural institutions such as libraries, archives and museums.
But will a digital library lead to ‘physical' libraries ceasing to exist?
"No, not at all," says Ms Woldering. "Printing of material is on the rise and ‘physical' users are increasingly filling up the reading rooms."