September 09, 2009 | Jim Killock

Google books hearing: what was, and wasn't said

The EU Google Books hearing highlighted some very serious concerns with the settlement, but mainly from a rights holder point of view.

The hearing itself addressed two quite distinct sets of issues; firstly concerns of EU rights holders with the USA agreement, and how they feel their rights are affected by that agreement. The aim for these speakers was to push the EU to uphold their exclusive rights under copyright, which they feel have been infringed, particularly by scanning and also by making works available without prior consent. Works where EU rights holders are not found may fall into this category.

The second set of issues however should be more important for EU legislators: how to make books available for search and sale in Europe. The paths forward on this are less easy, but it appears that some sort of reform to allow the exploitation of 'orphan works' is seen as a strong likelihood.

What seems less likely is an exception for scanning, search and indexing of published copyright content. Yet this may be the best answer to competition questions, by allowing a clearer path for new services to use copyright content, perhaps including video, audio and music in the future.

Similar questions may be raised around collective licensing agreements. Very little was said about the national nature of copyright, or about attempting to allow pan-European licensing, which has been a severe barrier to music services in the EU

Competition was raised as a concern, but genuine changes that might allow competitors to develop were not discussed in depth compared with the many voices from rights holders with varying levels of concern about loss of control, and violation of international copyright.

On the wider questions of academic use, many questions were not answered. There was a similar story with privacy issues. These are social questions, which need the application of social values from civil society and politicians. Privacy for the data produced by such a fundamental service may need to be better defined in law. From that point of view, the number of MEPs attending was disappointing low, as was the number of consumer groups speaking.

The major civil society voice was that of librarians, who had important points to make. Worries were raised about preservation of content in the event of Google's demise and the current ability of researchers to analyse the data that Google has collected. They argued that copyright limitations must stand above contracts. Librarians made strong points about the need for reading habits to be kept private. They argued for the need of developing countries to be able to access the information that has been accumulated.

While Google Books is very contentious between those whose rights are affected, the wider questions of competition, privacy, availability and access to knowledge were mostly only really addressed by librarians and ORG in the hearing. It was apparent that some changes to copyright law may be sought, but they are likely to be the minimum needed to allow this particular type of service to develop, rather than something wide enough to liberate a fuller range of opportunities for people wanting to use copyright works and contribute to the EU's economy.