This past week has seen a few new controversies crop up in the realm of digital books. In one case the result was a court-ordered shut-down of a website and the other saw the French government subsidize the distribution of recent French language works.
The “pirate” website Library.nu was closed as a result of a court order in Munich after allegations that the website was trafficking pirated copies of copyrighted material. What was interesting about this particular pirate website was that it did not distribute popular best-sellers in an attempt to break digital rights management software of ebook readers, but rather focused on the scanning and distribution of scholarly works. Most of the works on the website fell into the category of “orphan works” (out-of-print, but still under copyright), but also contained works by popular authors such as Salman Rushdie and Jonathan Franzen. Many of the ebooks that were posted for download were textbooks and technical manuals, which are extremely expensive to purchase in print format.
A coalition publishers, including powerhouse firms such as Macmillan, HarperCollins, and Oxford University Press. Unlike many pirate websites that specialize in sharing music or software, Library.nu allegedly hosted more than 400,000 scanned PDF files directly on their servers and provided links to even more titles. As the popularity of ebook reading devices takes off, we will undoubtedly see an increase in such sites popping up across the web.
In a related bit of news, the French government just passed new legislation that would subsidize the digitization and commercial distribution of French language works that are out-of-print (but presumably still under copyright) by the French National Library (Bibliothèque Nationale de France). The government has pledged 30 million Euros to digitize between 500,000 and 700,000 works for preservation and eventual commercial distribution (with the BNF taking a 40% cut of the profits for all ebooks sold).
As one can imagine, the publishing world and authors have reacted quite negatively to this new law, claiming that their copyrights are being violated. Copyright holders do have a chance to opt-out, but have only six months to file the necessary papers. The confusing language of the law can be read in English translation here.
It will be an interesting area to watch over the coming year. Will more and more national libraries begin similar mass digitization projects as a means to compete with the likes of Google Books? What makes the French example so interesting (or disturbing) is that they not only plan to scan these texts for preservation efforts, but also plan to commercialize the distribution of these works.