Could EC Digitzation Debate Pave the Way for a Competitor to Google?

In Feature Articles by Liz Bury

By Liz Bury

bodleian_logoLONDON: Deep in the Bodleian Library, the scholarly heart of Oxford University, England, is a locked room emitting, I imagine, a low hum. This is Google’s digitization suite, the control center of its scanning operation at the library, into which no Bodleian staffer may enter.

That, at least, is the story doing the rounds among British librarians, for whom Google has become a kind of fearful giant. The Bodleian, or “the bod” as it is affectionately known, is one of the UK’s six Legal Deposit Libraries, meaning that it has the legal obligation to receive a copy of any book published in Britain, in an arrangement dating back to 1610. The resulting collections are crammed into every possible available space, including at least one disused salt mine. By size, it is second only to the British Library.

google_book_searchNow, Google is digitizing all of the Bodleian’s out of copyright works, in a deal whose exact terms are not publicly known. The project should be a boon for scholars, offering unrivaled access to knowledge and boosting competitiveness. And yet it unsettles many Europeans, who look nervously at the terms of the Google settlement in the US, and mutter darkly about monopolistic control of digitized books. Of the 10 million books digitized by Google in the US, 4 million are non-US works.

Earlier this month individuals representing various European constituencies — including authors, libraries, and publishers — were invited to the European Commission (EC) in Brussels to discuss the Google Settlement. Many found fault with the proposal. One particular sticking point was the settlement’s inclusion of books that had been published in Europe, but not in America. Last week, Google conceded the point and agreed to exclude them from the digitization process.

On the whole, British authors are pragmatic. According to Owen Atkinson of the Authors’ Licensing and Collecting Society, who serves as the authors’ representative and voice at the Brussels meeting, UK authors accept that the US deal compensates them for already digitized works, as well as providing for possible future earnings.

But many German publishers, who claim 100,000 of their authors have been digitized, remain strongly opposed to the agreement, on the basis that Google’s “fair use” defense doesn’t stand up in Europe. Arnaud Nourry, CEO of the French publishing house Hachette Livre, concurred and voiced a similar objection.

But regardless of the posturing, the fact is that Google has forced Europe to look at its own record on digitization, and it has been found wanting. There is a glaring lack of any commercial rival to Google in book digitization in Europe. Without an alternative to consider, all parties must, at the very least, consider Google’s proposal.

Who else will pay to digitize, for example, the 50% to 70% of collections at the British Library estimated to be orphan works? Or, for that matter, across all of Europe’s libraries, where as much as 90% of all collections may be orphaned or out-of-print? Considering this fact alone, French Prime Minister Francois Fillon this week signaled that he will back a potential deal between Google and the French national library, Bibliothèque Nationale de France.

This may be a hint of things to come: European Commissioners Viviane Reding and Charlie McGreevy, hosts of the Brussels talks, believe that European copyright laws should be reviewed and harmonized across all EC states. A path could yet be smoothed for a European-wide settlement.

A clear policy statement from the EC would do much to push the UK and the continent further into the digital future. What’s more, not only would it pave the way for Google to proceed, but it might also create the opportunity for the creation of a European counterpart, if not a direct competitor to Google, something that could potentially benefit authors, publishers and all interested parties in the long term.

About the Author

Liz Bury


Liz Bury has been a writer and editor for 20 years, covering books, design and business risk. Her work has appeared in the Guardian, Building Design and The Bookseller, among other publications. She can be found tweeting rarely @lizziebbrown and on LinkedIn at