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Contrary to what publishers think, Libraries serve the Public

It is relatively well documented that neither the French nor publishers are big fans of copyright reform. Given this, the comments from the CEO of the French publisher Hachette Livre on at last week’s London Book Fair are not entirely surprising.  

Less than three weeks after the European Commission launched a consultation that appears to be designed to create additional copyrights for publishers, Hachette CEO Arnoud Nourry warned his international publishing colleagues that Google is a bigger threat to publishers than Amazon and greatly benefit from what he called “the European Commission’s senseless attack on copyright”. According to a summary of his talk provided by the Bookseller, he then went on to declare that:

… vast exceptions to copyright law for libraries, for education, for fair use” could provide an opening for Google to rebrand itself as a library, opening up its repositories of scanned content for free and profiting from advertising income [and] questioned why the EC was targeting publishers: “It is as if the Commission had made it a priority to weaken the only European cultural industry that has achieved worldwide leadership. Need I remind you that nine of the 12 largest publishing companies in the world are European?”’

To anyone following the relatively tame course the Commission has charted out for reviewing the EU copyright rules, this looks like a relatively ill-informed overreaction by a publisher who seems to be offended that European legislators dare to even think about modernizing EU copyright without asking the publishing industry for permission first. The obsessive focus on Google as an evil outsider intent to destroy culture-as-we-know-it highlights the unease the traditional publishing sector still feels when it comes to all things digital.

Surely every economic sector is entitled to its own approach to dealing with a changing environment, and it evident that publishers have an important stake in a review of the existing copyright rules. But it is questionable whether their entrenched market position calls for blindly striking out at everyone who is not a publisher (Google, the Commission, libraries). Watching this happen would be somewhat entertaining if Monsieur Nourry had not chosen to criticize a sector that is arguably most in need of updated copyright rules: libraries (and by extension the entire cultural heritage sector).

Arguing that libraries are proxies for the commercial interests of Google and other companies shows a complete lack of respect of the role and function of libraries and other public cultural heritage institutions in providing crucial access to information and cultural resources. A coalition of European library associations condemned Nourry’s comments, stating, “libraries are specifically designated worldwide as institutions necessary for serving the global public interest for a non-commercial purpose…[w]e go about our work for no direct or indirect economic gain.”

Cultural heritage institutions deserve better copyright rules

In Europe, publicly-funded libraries, museums, and archives are independent institutions, and have a proud tradition of operating without pursuing any direct or indirect economic gain. They exist to protect and promote the interests of their users – citizens, creators, students – and not to conspire with commercial entities for financial gain.

European cultural heritage institutions support a balanced copyright system where everyone has access to information and creativity, and creators are fairly rewarded. Unfortunately this balance no longer exists: The EU copyright rules that have traditionally provided exceptions to copyright tailored to allow cultural heritage institutions to pursue their public interest missions are stuck in the semi-digital mindset in place since the turn of the millennium. They don’t allow institutions to digitize their collections on a large scale, they make it nearly impossible to make works that are under copyright—but which have been effectively abandoned by their rightholders—available online, and they do not provide adequate protections against restrictive contracts and licenses that threaten to upend the privileges enjoyed by libraries and other institutions.

This sorry state of the copyright framework is preventing cultural heritage institutions from providing access to their collections in a way that internet users expect. No one (not even the publishers) benefits from the fact that cultural heritage institutions face enormous problems in making their collections available online because large parts of these collections are still in copyright but have been abandoned by their rightholders, who are not around to grant the required permission to make them available. This inability for GLAM institutions to make their collections available in the way that the public expects will threaten their very existence. Why should the public continue to pay for cultural heritage institutions if they are only granted online access to a small percentage of the shared commons of cultural works?

Publishers need libraries (and vice versa)

By attacking the limited and reasonable reforms that cultural heritage institutions are asking for, Monsieur Nourry is contributing to a sad dismantling of the long tradition of publicly funded European cultural heritage institutions. If publishers really want to prevent an information monoculture, where access to information is controlled by a small number of online platforms, then they should work with the cultural heritage institutions to strengthen their ability to operate in the digital environment.

A healthy and vibrant cultural heritage sector is an important asset for creators (and by extension their publishers). Authors rely on libraries, museums, and archives as places of inspiration, research, and raising awareness for their work. It is a shame that the publishing industry, blinded by its unwillingness to accept the digital reality, seems to have have lost the ability to see this.

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