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Google's internet library project will face competition from Yahoo!, but also from a less predictable rival: the European Commission announced its own plan on Friday. And it has an advantage: if copyright laws interfere with its plans it can change the laws.

The Commission wants to put Europe’s cultural heritage on the internet by turning books, photos, records and films into a massive digital library. It has launched a consultation that invites suggestions for legislative measures that could facilitate the digitisation and subsequent accessibility of copyright material while respecting the legitimate interests of authors.

“Without a collective memory, we are nothing, and can achieve nothing. It defines our identity and we use it continuously for education, work and leisure,” said Information Society and Media Commissioner Viviane Reding. “The internet is the most powerful new tool we have had for storing and sharing information since the Gutenberg press, so let’s use it to make the material in Europe’s libraries and archives accessible to all.”

Google's library project takes the book collections of several research libraries – about 15 million books – and makes this content searchable online. According to the Commission, Google's initiative "triggered a reflection on how to deal with our European cultural heritage in the digital age."

Google has faced problems: some copyright holders whose books featured in the libraries were upset and are currently suing the search company. The Commission hopes to avoid such problems by addressing copyright issues upfront. It does not depend on legal change in order to succeed; it can also work within today's laws. Its only driver for adjusting the laws is to increase the range of material on offer. Without change, the Commission can still stock works in which copyrights have expired or where permission is granted by copyright holders.

There are already several Member State-based digital library initiatives, including the British Library backed “Collect Britain” project. But these are fragmented and could result in duplicate work and systems that are mutually incompatible, according to the Commission. It therefore proposes that Member States and major cultural institutions join EU efforts to make digital libraries a reality throughout Europe.

The scale of the project is ambitious: there are 2.5 billion books and bound periodicals in European libraries and millions of hours of film and video in broadcasting archives.

Current copyright restrictions will limit the collection to works from the early 1900s or before, depending on the year of death of the author, and those works for which agreement has been obtained.

Even if works are out of copyright, the Commission notes that the situation is not always straightforward. There may be rights attached to the different editions of a work that is itself no longer protected by copyright, for example rights to introductions, covers and typography. The Commission notes in its Communication to the European Parliament and the Council of Ministers, "An online library offering works beyond public domain material is not possible without a substantial change in the copyright legislation, or agreements, on a case by case basis, with the rightholders." Identifying the rightholders may also be difficult.

Copyright © 2005, OUT-LAW.com

OUT-LAW.COM is part of international law firm Pinsent Masons.

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