INTERVIEW: Putting every book online for free

Richard Orange
Richard Orange - [email protected]
INTERVIEW: Putting every book online for free
A book being digitized at the Norwegian National Library - National Library of Norway

US publishers might see the benefits of putting their catalogues online for free if they travelled to Norway, where every book ever published will soon be available at the click of a mouse, the man leading the country's digitisation process has told The Local.


Svein Arne Solbakk, head of digital library development at the National Library of Norway, said that Norwegian publishers have in fact largely profited from a deal struck with the National Library to make all of books published in 2000 and before available on the National Library's website for free. 
"It is absolutely not obvious that the copyright holders are losing money on these services," he said.  "So far, 150,000 books are available for everyone, and only 5,000 of those are available in the stores, so in this way they make money on the other 145,000 books which otherwise would be out of the market." 
The National Library pays the publishers a flat rate of 36 Norwegian øre (5.8c) per page,  which, with 135,000 copyrighted books available, or 23.9m pages, amounted to a payment of some 8.6m kroner ($1.4m) in 2012.  The payment, which will rise as more books are made available, has not come at the expense of reduced sales, Solbakk argued.
"It may be that the sale of existing books is actually increasing, because the visibility of the books is better and a lot of people aren't satisfied with reading the books on the screen," he said.  
In the US, publishers have long resisted attempts by Google, the internet search company, to digitize all books and make them available online. The Authors Guild and the Association of American Publishers took Google to court for copyright infringement in 2005 over its plans to digitise all 129m books ever published. The long string of court cases, settlements and appeals that this began still continues today. 
"I can understand that copyright holders are a bit nervous about such an enterprise," Solbakk said. "But I think it's important to also see the possibilities in doing this. Maybe they should make a study tour and learn about our experiences, because I think the experiences are very interesting and not at all obvious."
Since the project was launched in 2006, the National Library has digitised 345,000 of the 450,000 books ever published in Norwegian.  Of those, nearly 150,000 are already available to anyone with a Norwegian internet address on the website, a collaboration with Kopinor, the trade body grouping Norwegian publishers and copyright holders. 
Solbakk admitted that such a collaboration would be more difficult to achieve in the US. 
"There's a lot more people and organisations that have to participate in such a discussion in the United States," he said. "You can only speculate why this is possible in Norway. Maybe because we're a small country and more transparent. It's possible to experiment with things." 
He said the National Library had moved slowly to assuage publishers' concerns, beginning by running a pilot scheme over three years, where all books published in the 1990s were made temporarily available for free online. 
"We've been working with the copyright holders for many years, and we've been able to make this agreement and help them to understand the consequence of it."  
Norway also benefits from a government willing to both fund the library's digitization programme and  pay publishers for the use of their copyrighted books. 
The library staff spent 113 man-years on digitization in 2012. They also spent 70 million kroner ($11m) on digital storage, scanners, software, travel, and digitization services.
Solbakk argued the outlay was very much worthwhile.  
"It's a tremendously popular resource,"  he said. "If you compare the cost to building a road or a tunnel or an airport, it's a fairly small amount of money." 
"Within the cultural sector, it's of course quite a big project, but the cost is about the same as raising a new building for the Opera or the National Library, and the positive consequences for the population may be quite big." 


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