Google tries to assuage EU doubters of its US Books deal

As the European Union examines a U.S. deal between Google and publishers, the company made concessions on Monday designed to address concerns its book digitization project has raised in Europe.

U.S. publishers sued Google for failing to respect their copyright when the company started digitizing books. They then reached a revenue-sharing settlement covering books that are still copyright-protected, ones whose copyright has expired, as well as the huge number of books that are technicaly still protected but have fallen out of print and where the copyright owner can’t be located.

In a letter to 16 European book publishing companies, the search giant proposed giving two of the eight director positions on its proposed U.S. book registry to non-U.S. representatives, a person close to the company said Monday.

Google paid $125 million to create the registry which will act as middleman between Google and the publishers and ensure that copyright owners are compensated.

The company also promised not to include European works in the digitizing process in the U.S. without consulting their publishers first.

Resistance to the U.S. deal is strong among some politicians, libraries and publishers, particularly in Germany and France.

Five organizations representing E.U. publishers, libraries, rights holders and businesses active in Internet commerce told the European Commission at a hearing on Monday that the proposed U.S. Google book settlement is unacceptable in its present form, because it would lead to “a de facto monopoly” in the emerging digital books market.

“We should not let a single U.S. entity dictate an international model of rights recording,” said Peter Brantley of the Internet Archive and Open Book Alliance, one of the five organizations.

Google doesn’t expect to win them all over with the two initiatives, but it is having more success winning support for its book digitizing ambitions in Brussels.

The U.S. settlement between Google and U.S. publishers, which is still under scrutiny by a New York court, was the subject of a one-day hearing hosted by the European Commission Monday.

It will be followed Tuesday by a series of one-on-one meetings between Information Commissioner Viviane Reding and, among others, Dan Clancy, Google’s top executive responsible for the Books project.

Many supporters of Google’s U.S. book digitization project in Europe, including some Commission officials and public libraries, want the E.U. to strike a similar deal to the U.S. settlement.

“Europe should definitely move in the same direction,” said Sylvia Van Peteghem, director of the Ghent University Library. Her library is one of seven prestigious European libraries already cooperating with Google to digitize copies of books in their collection for which the copyright has expired.

In a joint statement with Internal Market Commissioner Charlie McCreevy, Reding said Monday that “digitisation of books is a task of Herculean proportions which the public sector needs to guide, but where it also needs private-sector support.”

The commissioners warned: “If we are too slow to go digital, Europe’s culture could suffer in the future.”

However, simply duplicating the settlement on this side fo the Atlantic is impossible, partly because European laws don’t permit the sorts of class actions that the U.S. publishers set up to challenge Google, before they reached their agreement.

In addition, copyright law in Europe is different in each of the 27 E.U. member states, unlike the uniform system that exists in the U.S. To avoid disputes Google has so far agreed only to digitize books from European libraries that were published earlier than 1869.

Reding launched a consultation last month seeking views on how to improve the E.U.’s copyright system so that it better suits the digitizing of books, among other things.

“Will the current set of rules give consumers across Europe access to digitized books? Will it guarantee fair remuneration for authors? Will it ensure a level playing field for digitization across Europe, or is there still too much fragmentation following national borders?” asked Reding and McCreevy in their joint statement.

Google’s Clancy said in a blog posting Monday that the hearing with the Commission “offers us a wonderful opportunity to clear up misunderstandings and further explain the opportunities offered by the U.S. agreement. All of us, on both sides of the Atlantic share the same crucial goal — to bring millions of lost books back to life.”

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