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 The World Library

The World Library – powered by Google?

September 17, 2009

Would it not be an amazing day when you could download every book under the sun from one source. From visiting your library, to your local book shop, to online bookshops, to digital libraries – the digital revolution or should we say ‘evolution’ is shaping our ‘access’ to culture again. Project Gutenberg was the first to digitise a library of books that had lost copyright. The idea they incubated was seminal and groundbreaking – No more fines for late books, just quick and easy downloads of ebooks from Chaucer to the Count of Mountecristo. But not everyone wants a classic on their hard drive when they could have a Murakami on their iphone.

From Gutenberg, all our household names joined the band wagon and began digitising the world heritage of literary archives. Yahoo, Microsoft (although their project has now been abandoned), Amazon and, of course, Google, who is currently staking $125 million so it can settle a dispute to take over the band wagon.

Google’s digitisation project comes in 2 parts: the partner and the library project. Under the partner project, publishers allow Google to show a few pages from their books to users, who then are directed to online bookstores to complete their purchase. The library project, involves Google scanning in published books from universities, from the Bodleian Library (Oxford) to US universities and public libraries. Some of these items will be in copyright some out of copyright, but the contracts with libraries, such as the contract with the University of California, show that all copyright laws will be complied with.

For Google’s  library project a lot of the content they scan is out of copyright protection. Some of the books, however, are scanned without knowing clearly whether copyright subsists – such books are referred to as orphaned works. The adoption by Google of these so-called orphaned works is one of the controversial issues culminating in the current class action against them (Authors Guild v. Google).

A preliminary settlement for this action was agreed last year and in October the terms of that settlement should be finalised. The expected outcome is to allow Google to carry on its project and set up an independent compensation regime called the ‘Books Rights Registry’ which will provide sales and advertising revenue to rights holders.

This settlement has sparked much interest from around the world, with individual countries in Europe, such as France and Germany, voicing formal objections. But from Brussels, the European Commission, although weary of a potential Google monopoly, is encouraging the digitisation of books (please see Digital Priorities for the next five years, also the EU funded Europeana library) and sees this debate as an opportunity for Europe to engage with rather than resist the tide coming from the Atlantic.