The European Commission issued a call to arms to European lawmakers and those involved in the process of digitising books on Monday, urging the European Union to create a "pro-competitive European" answer to the legal arrangement Google and others seek to implement in the US.
It added that it is possible to set up an EU legal framework for digitising books quicker than in the US, in spite of the head start Google has already made there and despite the fact that the EU comprises the different copyright regimes of the 27 member nations.
"If we act swiftly, pro-competitive European solutions on books digitisation may well be sooner operational than the solutions presently envisaged under the Google Books Settlement in the United States," said Viviane Reding, the commissioner for telecoms and the information society.
A person close to Reding said the Commission doesn't expect a final disposition in the Google Books settlement until the end of 2010. At a status hearing earlier this month, the US District Court judge in the case gave the parties involved until November 9 to submit a revised settlement agreement. The deal had suffered a blow in September when the US Department of Justice filed a brief with the court, calling for the settlement to be modified so that it complies with not only copyright and antitrust laws, but also with rules governing settlements of class action lawsuits.
Reding, together with Charlie McCreevy, commissioner in charge of the internal market and copyright issues, unveiled a plan to speed up the transfer of knowledge contained in books in libraries across Europe to digital platforms accessible to everyone.
One major hurdle is the question of how to digitise so-called orphan works - books whose authors cannot be identified or located. Another is what to do with books that have gone out of print. The Commission said on Monday it will begin talks with libraries, the publishing and technology industries and consumer groups to find a solution for "simple and cost-efficient rights clearance covering mass-scale digitization and the online dissemination of library collections still protected by copyright", it said.
As regards orphan works, the Commission wants to establish common due diligence standards to recognize orphan status across the EU.
Last November it launched a project, loosely modelled on the Book Registry idea contained in the proposed Google Books settlement, called ARROW (Accessible Registries of Rights information and Orphan works). This gathers national libraries, collective management organisations and publishers and is co-funded by the EU. ARROW identifies rights holders and clarifies the rights status of a work, including whether it is out of print or orphan.
The two Commissioners said the debate over the Google Books Settlement in the US shows that Europe can't afford to be left behind on the digital frontier.
"We must boost Europe as a centre of creativity and innovation. The vast heritage in Europe's libraries cannot be left to languish but must be made accessible to our citizens," said Commissioner McCreevy.
Google welcomed the Commission's initiative on Monday. "With today's communication, Europe shows how it is at the forefront of bringing cultural and knowledge heritage back to life," it said in a statement. "This is part of a tremendous undertaking and we are participating in it with Google Books. We look forward to working with the Commission on solutions that will support further developments of digitization initiatives designed to preserve Europe's culture."