Google books: getting it right in Europe

Next week, Open Rights Group will be one of a number of groups speaking to the EU Commission about what they should do to ensure the right deal is made to ensure online book services grow in Europe. We outlined our ideas in an excellent paper by Daithí Mac Síthigh last week.

Online books services is another area where the digital age has put copyright law under immense strain. As it stands, the settlement being made in the USA to allow Google to provide their book search just would not work in Europe. This is partly because of the USA’s more flexible copyright laws, which allow wider ‘fair use’ claims to be made and defended in court, and partly because ‘class action’ settlements allow Google and book publishers to make an agreement that applies to everyone who owns a book copyright. There is also the difficulty of licensing works for use in so many different territories, as each European state has its own copyright regime.

The bottom line for ORG is that books should be made available online, search facilities should be legitimate, and the vast numbers of out-of-print and out-of-copyright books should be there for people to find. Plenty of questions need answering, of course, including the need for competition, both for consumers, and in the interests of free speech. Public domain works should not be ‘locked up’ by copyrighting the formatting and restricting the content with DRM. Privacy concerns around recording reading habits must be addressed, although EU law protects us better than US law.

The benefits of knowledge should be shared widely: the provisions for academic use in Google’s settlement are pretty thin, and will not apply to Europe. There is a certain irony that much of European literature will be more available in the USA than in Europe. And the biggest social benefits might be found in opening up this knowledge to the developing world’s education system: this needs to be addressed, rather than ignored as a marginal political issue.

So there is plenty of need for debate around what sort of solution for Europe is proposed, which may require legislation to modify European copyright law. Legislation can be a difficult process as different interests lobby hard for solutions that suit them. It’s not an ideal way forward, as it will inevitably define the sort of services that will be created, and a better solution could in a more flexible, user-oriented copyright system than we currently have in Europe. Legislation does however give us the chance to debate the social benefits of the services we envisage, and hopefully create a solution that avoids the problems of monopoly.