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20th Aug 2019

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EU states concerned over Google library plans

  • The British Library reading room: Is Google a threat? (Photo: Wikipedia.org)

EU competitiveness ministers meeting in Brussels on Thursday are expected to ask the European Commission to take a closer look at Google's plans to create a digital library amid fears that European intellectual property rights are being breached

The issue will be raised by Germany, which also alerted the culture ministers to the potential problem when they met earlier this month.

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"Germany wants to raise awareness of Google's plans to digitalise books," said a German diplomat, with France, Austria and the Netherlands also said to be keen to have the issue put on the table.

The internet search giant, which says it wants to democratise knowledge by helping everyone have instant access to a vast library of books, began its mammoth book scanning project in 2004.

A year later, the Authors Guild and the Association of American Publishers filed a class-action law suit, saying Google was violating copyright by displaying excerpts of books without the permission of the copyright holders.

The company settled in October last year, but the agreement raised a whole new set of questions, which are currently being investigated by the US Justice Department on anti-trust grounds.

The settlement, which still has to be finally approved by court in October, would allow Google to sell access to its online books as well as subscriptions to its entire library to other libraries. Google already has around 7 million books that can be accessed through its book search. The revenue would go to Google, authors and publishers.

But critics of the settlement, which gives authors an early January deadline to be eligible to receive cash for having their books scanned or a September 2009 deadline to opt out of the scheme entirely, say it effectively gives Google the power to single-handedly privatise libraries.

Orphan books

They argue that Google alone would then have the rights to "orphan books" where no copyright holder comes forward. A recent article in the Wall Street Journal newspaper estimated that orphan books make up 50 to 70 percent of books published after 1923.

Under this monopoly situation, say critics, the internet company would be able to charge what it likes for access to its books.

For its part, Google has said it is giving an eternal digital life to millions of books that have gone out of print.

Google's plans have implications for EU intellectual property rights and anti-trust law, say EU diplomats.

One EU diplomat said the plans "are not entirely in the interests of European authors." He added that under EU law Google would have to "ask European copyright holders for permission first."

The Federation of European Publishers said it would be happy if the European Commission looked into the "competitivity aspects of this."

"This is against any copyright rules that exist where a user makes a request first for material and not present it as a fait accompli," Anne Bergman-Tahon, director of the FEP, told EUobserver.

Speaking from Prague, where she said she was explaining the problems to a Czech audience, Ms Bergman-Tahon said "millions of works will never be claimed because these 300 pages of settlement are so complicated."

Germany outspoken critic

Germany has long been an outspoken critic of Google's plans in this area.

In an interview with the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung on Wednesday (27 May) Justice minister Brigitte Zypries said Berlin is considering whether to take part in the New York court case as Amicus Curiae - a friend of the court.

"It is not about taking participating as a party on the legal dispute but making the court aware of certain legal aspects," said the minister.

The Google plan raises problems for the European digital library, Europeana, launched last year, another EU diplomat pointed out.

Both libraries should be "on a level footing when it comes to intellectual property rights," noted the diplomat.

Currently, Europeana consists only of works in the public domain and is free to access.

At the moment, the Google question is "not a major issue" for member states, but they are "seeking more information from the commission," said a diplomat.

For its part, Google said it was "happy to engage in any constructive dialogue about the future of books and copyright."

Calling the US agreement "groundbreaking," Google spokesperson Bill Echikson said it "creates a new marketplace for both European authors and publishers to sell their works."

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