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Google online books scheme raises concerns in Europe

  • A statement by the EU commission on Monday called for a legislative framework (Photo: Flickr.com)

As the scope of Google's plans to digitise millions of books gradually becomes clear, European publishers, booksellers and authors are up in arms about copyright, data privacy and censorship issues.

They aired their fears in Brussels on Monday (7 September) at a European Commission hearing looking into the implications of the search engine giant's stated aim of "democratising information."

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Many of the speakers at the day-long event expressed concern that the world's cultural heritage risked being controlled by a single corporate entity, as well as the opaque way in which Google's potential dominance in this area has come about.

Google will become the "world's de facto bookseller," said Fran Dubruille of the European Booksellers' Federation while Stuart Hamilton, of the International Federation of Library Associations, said "we are concerned at the monopolistic nature of the project."

The criticism was sparked by a deal last year between the US company and a group of US authors and publishers, who had taken Google to court in 2005 for copyright infringement after it scanned millions of works for its book search service without getting permission.

The resulting 'Book Settlement' allows Google to scan out-of-print and orphaned books - books where the copyright holder is not known - and sell them online.

The settlement, the implications of which have only slowly come to light, has angered EU publishers who fear European works will be exploited in the US.

In addition, they question whether such a wide-ranging issue as copyright, affecting publishers and authors all over the world, should be the subject of a private agreement - something enabled by the US system of class action.

"Our members are quite fundamentally opposed to the settlement," said Jessica Saenger from the German publishers' and booksellers' association.

She said "Google is being rewarded for breaking the law" and has been granted a "monopoly position concerning orphan and unclaimed works."

Sylvie Fodor, director of European picture agency association CEPIC, expressed concern about the copyright on photograhic images, not covered by the settlement. Google has said it will black out images in books its scans, but she said "there is no legal security that this will happen."

Pan-European licensing

Censorship concerns were also raised as Google has the power to remove books from its register while others said the digital libary would hand Google a whole set of revealing data on individuals' reading habits.

Several other participants, meanwhile, emphasised the huge cultural and economic advantage that the US will gain through this digitisation project, as the works will only be available to US-based consumers, and urged the EU to tackle its complicated patchwork of copyrights. European efforts to create a public online library are only plodding along.

Jim Killock, from the Open Rights Group, said that "European literature may soon be more available in the US," something he deemed "ironic" and urged the creation of a "pan-European licensing system."

European research libraries representative Wouter Schallier spoke about the "most serious competitive disadvantage" for European universities while another library representative called on the European Commission to make sure legislation in Europe "allows us to do something similar here."

Concessions

Google, which has scanned around 10 million books for the Google library of which it estimates "2 to 4 million" are European, defended itself at the hearing.

"You can discover information which you did not know was there," said Google's engineering director Dan Clancy. "It is important that these books are not left behind. Google's interest was in helping people to find the books."

But in the face of criticism, Google offered a concession to European publishers on Monday, saying it would remove European books that are still commercially available from its scanned catalogues.

Up until now, European authors whose books were out of print were automatically included in the digitisation process.

Google has also promised to have two non-US representatives on the board of its Books Rights Registry, which oversees the implementation of the settlement.

The Brussels hearing was organised after EU member states, particularly France and Germany, raised concerns about the Google's digital library, which is also due for a final hearing by the US justice department in October.

Europe's various copyright laws make it impossible for it to have a similar settlement, but a statement by the commission on Monday called for a legislative framework that "paves the way for a rapid roll out of services, similar to those made possible in the US by the recent settlement, to European consumers."

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