Google, Europe and Us. On some oddities with regard to the Google Book Settlement, Europeana and a reader’s perspective.
August 31, 2009 by admin

Following the controversy around the Google Settlement and European publishers’ and author (and collecting) societies, one could assume to witness a battle between a bunch of European Jedi knights against that Dark Vader from Mountain View, California. From a more detached reader’s point of view, things are clearly more complex.

While Google chose to digitize works from libraries at a massive scale since 2004, European representatives of copyright holders call on lawyers and legislators to fight the US settlement between the industry giant and stakeholders such as author and publishing representatives in a stand off that, in Germany or Austria in particular, has taken on the forms of cultural wars.

If things were so simple though.

A good moment of research in the database of Europeana, the European digital library network opposing Google, generates rather puzzling results.

First of all, pictures by far outnumber texts. Take Thomas Mann (1875 – 1955), the German Nobel laureate of 1929. We find 152 pictures and 45 text files, out of which only 10 are works by Thomas Mann. 9 of those are in Hungarian, 1 in Greek which can’t be opened. The Hungarian files include major works of Mann in full text, such as the Tonio Kröger, published initially in German in 1903.

The digital collection of modern classics of the Hungarian ‘SzĂ©chĂ©nyi‘ National Library is impressive indeed. It includes such master pieces as the collected short stories of the Argentinian Jorge Luis Borges, or the novel  “La Peste” by French Nobel laureate Albert Camus, all in Hungarian translation.

A copyright note to the digital collection, identifying the “Hungarian Electronic Library” MEK as the “administrator” of the public site, indicates:

„The copyright and other privileges are owned by the author/owner of the document (if he/she is known). If the author or owner expressly specifies conditions regarding the distribution and usage somewhere in this text, then those terms overrule the limitations stated below. Furthermore he or she is responsible for that too, that the distribution of this document in electronic form doesn’t hurt some other person authorship rights.”

And it furthermore allows a stunning set of free usages of its pages , clearly disregarding any copyright restrictions on the original works which it puts on display in Hungarian translation (for which, we hope at least, they have acquired the digital rights):

„This document can be freely copied and distributed, but you can use it only for personal purposes and non-commercial applications, without modifying it, and with proper citation to the original source.”

Another good example is French modern classic Paul Valéry, whose digitization by Google from US library copies was one of the starting points for the rage of France against the Anglo-dominated cultural effort of bringing books onto the Internet in the first place (with Europeana being one of the most direct results of the case).

Looking up texts by Paul ValĂ©ry (1871 – 1945) in Europeana results in 10 links to digital texts, none in French, and most from the Slovenian National and University Library of Ljubljana, including “The Crisis of the Mind”, a key text of ValĂ©ry’s. The two letters – “Kriza duha” in Slovenian – have been published initially in 1919 in English by Athenaeum in London, and then reproduced, in French in August of the same year, in “La Nouvelle Revue Francaise”.

As the Slovenian National Library provides no clues as to the printed sources (aside from a bland “From the collections of VaritetĂ© A.D.”), nor the translator nor the copyright, I found those details instead on the original publication of ValĂ©ry’s letters with another digital version , put up onto the web by a Massachusetts based organization, “The History Guide“,  which aims at giving students and teachers good content to “revolutionizing education in the spirit of socratic wisdom” and issuing, as it goes, its own ‘creative commons’ kind of conditions of usage with its site.

In fact, this is not the only online ressource for ValĂ©ry’s seminal pamphlet. The UniversitĂ© du QuĂ©bec Ă  Chicoutimi is so proud of its digital (French) version of “La crise de l’esprit” that it not only places it in a nice layout, but even adds the name and Email address of the person who did the digital version so nicely, Pierre Palpant. Thank you very much for your help indeed!

In return, “La crise de l’esprit” cannot be retrieved from Europeana, or its source, “Gallica“, the pride of “La Bibliothèque nationale de France”, BnF, for copyright reasons.

As for Thomas Mann’s “Tonio Kröger”, I can find it full text at Scribd, a generally ‘legal’ portal, yet with lots of copyrighted, not so kosher reading stuff uploaded by and for students as well, and – my favorite finding by far – anpther copy at the most popular Italian dating site, “Amore Infinito“, in a bi-lingual version as a translation exercise and promo sample for its translator Heinrich F. Fleck who even claims a copyright for his translation, and refers to “casa Fisher” (recte Frankfurt based Holtzbrinck daughter S. Fischer) for the original rights.

At Google books, I find most texts by Mann and ValĂ©ry with only their bibliographical data, yet no quotes, but an English collection of ValĂ©ry’s “Writings“, including some of his poems in French, in a still available edition of “New Directions”, the famous house of Ezra Pound, William Carlos William, or more recently, Robert Walser and Roberto Bolano.

“Tonio Kröger”, of course, is also available as an e-Book for legal download, for instance at Mobipocket at Euro 1,20.

It is all a big mess indeed.

This by far non-exhaustive research of only a few titles of two writers, a French and a German modern classic, neither one a bestseller for their rights holder, Holtzbrinck’s S. Fischer for Thomas Mann, and Gallimard for Paul ValĂ©ry, are good enough though to provide a glimpse on the many mirrors reflecting books and related copyrighted material (or, even more so, so called orphaned works with no obvious rights holder to ask for permissions) onto the web. For good reasons, I excluded any notorious piracy sites in this research.

As a reader, I have serious doubts that at this stage, a good solution for me can evolve out of a legal battle between author or publisher organizations, and the likes of Google. And yet, of course, I want rights to be respected, and writers and others who are adding value to be paid.

It certainly must not be rewarded that one actor, in this case Google, decided to move first forcefully, and than, reluctantly, may comply to questions asked later. And I share the deep skepticism towards Google’s growing clout on the “world text mass” (“Welttextmasse“), the wonderful term coined by the ever good intuition of Peter Glaser. Furthermore it is not acceptable to simply apply US law to Europe.

This said, I must add that I don’t see either any reasonable perspective in expecting the same committees of stakeholder organizations who so far did not produce a lot more than angry calls for a silly “battle for our culture” may come up now with anything more meaningful or productive than over the past five years, since Google started its digitization of libraries on a grand scale.

Instead I consider some European version of a “fair use” formula a desirable perspective, and a European equivalent of the Google settlement is most likely the best and the most realistic way of developing a balanced system for handling copyrighted content on the Internet – with the creators AND the readers in mind. With no such settlement, all that we get is huge bills for lawyers, and little rewards (yet a huge chaos) for everybody else.

Interestingly, the outgoing Commissioner for the Information Society at the European Commission, Viviane Reding, has had the most clear words in this respect recently, as she said: “If we do not reform our European copyright rules on orphan works and libraries swiftly, digitisation and the development of attractive content offers will not take place in Europe, but on the other side of the Atlantic.”

As a footnote, I want to add that even if one doesn’t buy into the argument of Mrs Reding’s statement (which I consider as highly appropriate though), it is to be noted that she at least speaks about that process in a perspective for the future  – while most self appointed defenders of the endangered book culture speak of it only in the past tense.

The Jedi knights and Dark Vader are certainly great fun in a movie, or a novel. But they do not provide a valid blueprint for what needs to be done for us readers, or for authors or publishers.

Deutsche Fassung hier.

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