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Untangling Europe's digital rights

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The cloud of ash from Iceland’s volcanic eruption left its mark at the London Book Fair last week. Several large and imposing stands in the exhibition hall stood as empty shells with neither exhibits nor personnel, due to the travel disruption, while seminars and speeches at the conference sessions had to be hurriedly cancelled or curtailed.

The cloud might almost serve as a metaphor for the difficulties disrupting digital access to books and other publications. But in the case of digitised works, it is a cloud of uncertainty over the law and politics of digital rights management.

The big challenge for major digitisation projects is facilitating the search for rights information and asking rights holders for permission to digitise their work, according to Graham Taylor, director of educational, academic, and professional publishing at the UK’s Publishers Association.

In the USA this is going down the legal route, where a Class Action Suit concerning Google’s book digitisation project is currently working its way through the courts. ‘In Europe, it’s healthier’, Taylor said, as ‘we are going down the legislative route.’

One major digitisation project on the eastern side of the Atlantic is The European Library,. This network organisation headquartered at the National Library of The Netherlands was set up to ensure ‘equal access and to promote worldwide understanding of the richness and diversity of European culture and learning’, according to Sally Chambers, collections manager for The European Library, who was also speaking at the book fair.

This European Library brings together the national libraries of 48 European countries, acting as a portal, with a user interface in all 35 languages. It also acts as the library-driven aggregator for Europeana, a single, multilingual access point for digital access to European Cultural heritage.

These ambitious European projects face difficult technical problems, not least in dealing with Europe’s polyglot languages. Other issues include the perennial question as to whether the MARC standard – MAchine Readable Cataloguing – is sufficiently robust and flexible to solve today’s problems of digitising libraries. This was discussed in questions at the conference with the slightly grudging conclusion that we are currently stuck with MARC.

But, as Graham Taylor identified, one of the biggest issues underpinning such developments is that of rights management. Here another European project hopes to offer a solution. Arrow –Accessible Registries of Rights Information and Orphan Works towards Europeana -- is a single framework designed to manage rights information supporting the development of digital libraries in Europe. It will identify rights-holders and clarify the status of works as to whether they are out of print or orphan works – in copyright but with no information as to who the rights-holder is.

Sally Chambers described this issue as ‘the 20th century’s black hole in the digitising of libraries’. Most of the books that have been digitised so far are either antique – 19th century or earlier and so out of copyright – or are already in the public domain without copyright restrictions.

The search for rights-clearance is time and resource intensive and if the owners cannot be traced then the book has to be placed in the orphan category and cannot be digitised. This is holding up the digitisation of many 20th century works. According to one British Library estimate, as many as 40 per cent of 20th century books could fall into the orphan category. However, this figure was regarded as a gross overestimate by some at the meeting.

Arrow is a technical system offering a distributed rights information infrastructure, and a registry of orphan works. By the summer of this year, the alpha release will be running in Germany, the UK, Spain and France, with a further seven countries joining by February 2011.

There is, Chambers said, no formal link between the Arrow project and the Google Books Rights Registry, but as the technical aspects were very similar, staff from the two projects did meet and know each other. However, progress would depend on political and legal developments on each side of the Atlantic.

The June/July issue of Research Information magazine will feature a longer version of this article, as well as further coverage of the London Book Fair