European Commission challenges Google Books

The EU's flagship digitization project takes on Google Books

Europeana brings art and published content to the Web

Europeana brings art and published content to the Web

The European Commission is set to take on Google Books. The latest report on the Commission's Europeana project, released on Monday, urges European Union member states to digitize collections held in all their libraries, archives and museums.

Europeana is the E.U.'s digital library and currently offers free access to more than 15 million digitized books, maps, newspapers, paintings, photographs and other artifacts. This puts it in competition with Google Books, which also estimates that it has digitized 15 million books. The main area of concern for Europeana is in so-called 'orphan works' (material whose potential right-holders are unknown) or books that are out of print. Currently, Google digitizes only public domain material in Europe (pre-1870 works).

Monday's report recommended that although it is primarily the role of rights-holders to digitize out-of-print works and exploit them, cultural institutions must have a window of opportunity to digitize material and make it available to the public, for which right holders should be remunerated.

Last year the Commission sought assurances from Google that it would not infringe the copyright of authors. The Internet giant replied that it would only display works with the approval of their copyright holders. However, in the U.S., Google has reached a deal with many publishers and does not limit its book digitization to public domain material. European organizations meanwhile have used Google Books to digitize their material and have then gone on to submit the files to Europeana. In September Ghent University Library became the first to contribute public domain works scanned by Google to the project.

Speaking at the launch of the report, Digital Agenda Commissioner Neelie Kroes said that she welcomed the element of competition and that it would most likely lead to a better product. However she added that member states need to considerably increase their funding for digitization.

"I am not sure that Google Books are doing exactly the same thing as us. We want to give the widest access to the widest audience on a free basis. Europeana is not based on a business model of profitability. This being said we believe that there are opportunities for new players to confront Google," said Maurice Lévy, one of the authors of the report.

Google meanwhile welcomed the report saying it "adds to the discussion on digitization and highlights its importance in preserving and increasing access to cultural heritage."

In terms of public-private partnerships, the report recommended a period of seven years for any agreement for preferential or exclusive use of the digitized material. This compares favorably with Google Books' 15-year agreements -- the company originally had 25-year deals.

With contributions from all E.U. countries, Europeana will have to agree a standardized file format, however this level of technical cooperation has not yet been agreed to. Nonetheless, the report notes: "Standardized and well-documented file formats can be handled more easily than proprietary formats, but open documentation is not always in the interest of software companies."

Photographs, maps, paintings and images of museum objects make up 64 percent of the Europeana collection. A further 34 percent is dedicated to texts, including more than 1.2 million complete books that can downloaded. These include rare manuscripts with the earliest printed books from before 1500.

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