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4th Mar 2024

Merkel joins EU chorus against Google Books

  • An old analogue card catalogue at the University of Ghent, made redundant by technology (Photo: Leigh Phillips)

German Chancellor Angela Merkel has added her voice to a small but growing number of people who are increasingly alarmed about internet search giant Google's scheme to digitise millions of books from the globe's leading libraries.

No curmudgeonly luddite, the leader of the European Union's largest economy made the comments via her weekly podcast on Saturday (10 October) ahead of this week's opening of the Frankfurt Book Fair.

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"The German government has a clear position: copyrights have to be protected on the internet," she said, warning of the "considerable dangers" to copyright from the digital world.

However, she did not say she was opposed to any book digitalisation project tout court. The problem was the way the US search engine firm was going about it.

"We reject the scanning in of books without any copyright protection - like Google is doing. The government places a lot of weight on this position on copyrights to protect writers in Germany."

"It's clear to the German government that intellectual property rights must find their place on the internet," she continued. "For that reason we refuse to permit simple scanning of books without full protection of intellectual property rights."

Ms Merkel made her comments on the fifth anniversary of Google's book project. In 2004, the firm launched its scheme at the Frankfurt Book Fair, the world's largest trade fair for books.

Google is in the process of digitally scanning 10s of millions of books from some of the most important libraries in Europe, the United States, and Japan, including the Bodleian Library in Oxford, the Harvard University Library and the Boekentoren at the University of Ghent.

The ultimate aim, according to Google, is to create the largest online corpus of human knowledge and to make it freely available, extending the reach of these great libraries to anyone who has access to the internet, and not simply those who study at such prestigious institutions.

It is believed that some 10 million books have been scanned in the project that Google widely publicises, but at the same time the details of whose process it keeps highly guarded.

Almost immediately after the launch, authors and publishers in the US sued Google, concerned at the thought of the book trade going the way of the music industry.

By putting untold numbers of out-of-print books online for free, publishers worry that the scheme could put them out of business.

In an out-of-court settlement with the Authors Guild of America and the Association of American Publishers (AAP), Google is to pay $125 million (€89 million) to create a book rights registry in which authors and publishers register their publications and receive a lump sum of $5 to $60 per work and then 63 percent of the revenues - currently mostly coming from advertising and licensing to institutions and consumers - resulting from the digitisation scheme.

Some in European quarters have criticised the US authors' groups for coming to an agreement that is to their benefit but does not take into account EU rights holders.

European information society commissioner Vivianne Reding, while welcoming the scheme, has proposed the creation of a European Book Registry. Brussels sees book digitisation as one of the key online fields of battle over the next few years.

German publishing houses have criticised the US legal settlement and French authors and publishers groups are suing Google between €15 million and €100,000 for each day it "violates copyright" in the process of digitisation.

Wisdom as 'content'

Some European librarians, authors and political leaders are worried about the service for other reasons, chief among them is the presumed dominance of anglophone works that an American firm would inevitably establish.

Robert Darnton, an American cultural historian and a pioneer of the history of the book, calls the project "an instrument for privatising knowledge that belongs in the public sphere," and is worried that the work of centuries is viewed by Google simply as content to which advertising can be attached and mined for profit.

He also worries that the settlement could eventually turn Google into the monopoly publisher of digital books.

Google co-founder Sergey Brin, apparently sensing the growing alarm, argued in an opinion piece in the New York Times on Friday (9 October) that the scheme is making books long lost to all but a handful of scholars available to the masses.

"The vast majority of books ever written are not accessible to anyone except the most tenacious researchers at premier academic libraries," he wrote. "Books written after 1923 quickly disappear into a literary black hole. With rare exceptions, one can buy them only for the small number of years they are in print. After that, they are found only in a vanishing number of libraries and used book stores."

Google responded to Ms Merkel's comments by denying there was any threat to copyright in Europe as a result of the scheme.

"Google Books complies with all copyright requirements in Germany. Showing snippets of books is compliant with German copyright law. In Germany like everywhere else, we do not show even a full page of an in-copyright book without the copyright holder's explicit permission," the company said in a statement.

"We also have a partnership with the Bavarian State library, where we're only scanning public domain books. The scope of our U.S. settlement is limited to the US and comes under U.S law and only U.S. readers will benefit."

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