Germany Challenges Google Books at Its Own Game

In Europe by Siobhan O'Leary

By Siobhan O’Leary

BERLIN: Nowhere has there been more hand ringing about the Google Books project than in Europe. In Germany, the issue even attracted the attention of Chancellor Angela Merkel, who expressed her displeasure with the Google Book settlement prior to the opening of the Frankfurt Book Fair last October.

Germany Challenges

Detail from the DDB Web site

In the intervening months, changes to the settlement have assuaged some fears, but the recent news that Google Editions will launch in Germany later this year has made the need to address the question of whether or not book digitization projects should be left in the hands of private enterprise or taken on by public institutions even more acute.

In fact, Germany now has a plan to challenge Google at its own game.  In December, the government announced the Deutsche Digitale Bibliothek (DDB) — the German Digital Library — a plan to connect the databases of 30,000 German cultural and academic organizations and create an Internet portal that would be available to all German citizens.

This new digital library will contain everything from books and documents, to paintings, film and music recordings. In addition, it will be linked to Europeana, a similar project launched in 2008 by the European Union (that still contains little content and remains difficult to access), and to libreka!, the German e-book portal run by the MVB, a subsidiary of the Boersenverein des Deutschen Buchhandels (the German Publishers and Booksellers Association).

Cultural minister Bernd Neumann has said that German government intends to funnel 5 million euros (approximately $7.6 million) into the project to start, and will add an additional 2.6 million euros at a later date.

Neumann called the DDB a “reasonable response to Google,” and emphasized that the DDB would be publicly funded, underscoring criticism that Google, as a private company, is focused solely on its own commercial interests. Much of the European opposition to the Google Settlement arose from Google’s initial unwillingness to state how it would make the digitized books available, and at what cost. It was only at this year’s Frankfurt Book Fair, with the announcement of Google Editions, that Google offered some idea of what they intended.

Neumann added that project would be different from Google in that it would seek the permission of publishers and copyright holders before digitizing their work, rather than using Google’s own “opt-out” approach.

Despite this clearly defined plan, not everyone is convinced that it will avoid all of the pitfalls of the original Google Settlement. Several major German publications, including Spiegel Online, the FAZ and the Tagesspiegel, object to the fact that the project is not due to launch until 2011, and argue that it poses some of the same problems as Google Books. Most notably, as long as German law continues to protect the copyright of “orphan works” (books without a clear copyright holder) for 70 years after the death of the author, the DDB will not be able to provide access to a good number of relatively recent works that are no longer available for purchase.

What has also becoming increasingly clear since the announcement was made is that many German publishers do not necessarily want a distinct alternative to Google Books, but simply to have their own agreement with Google.

In a dpa article featured on the website of the German Foreign Office, Hoffmann und Campe publisher Guenter Berg pointed out how much of the gnashing of teeth of the past year could have been avoided “if [Google] had spoken just once to the German publishers before the original Google Books Settlement.”

The overarching feeling in Germany seems to be that a nation with as significant book and publishing as Germany should have been invited by Google to become a party to the agreement from the very start.

VISIT: The project Web site for the Deutsche Digitale Bibliothek.

VIEW: A PowerPoint presentation of the initial presentation from December (in German).

About the Author

Siobhan O'Leary

Siobhan O’Leary is a literary agent, translator and writer based in Berlin. She previously worked in the Foreign Rights department of the Crown Publishing Group (Random House) and at the publishing consulting firm Market Partners International.