At a time when the publishing world is torn over its relationship to the Internet — which has massively expanded access to books but also threaten royalty revenues — the National Library of Norway is digitizing tens of thousands of titles, from masterworks by Nobel laureate Knut Hamsun to the first detective novels by Nordic noir king Jo Nesbø.
The copyright-protected books are available free online — with the consent of the copyright holders — at the website bokhylla.no ("bookshelf" in Norwegian).
The site currently features 135,000 works and will eventually reach 250,000, including Norwegian translations of foreign books.
National Library head Vigdis Moe Skarstein said the project is the first of its kind to offer free online access to books still under copyright, which in Norway expires 70 years after the author's death.
"Many national libraries digitize their collections for conservation reasons or even to grant access to them, but those are (older) books that are already in the public domain," she said.
"We thought that, since we had to digitize all our collection in order to preserve it for the next 1,000 years, it was also important to broaden access to it as much as possible."
The National Library has signed an agreement with Kopinor, an umbrella group representing major authors and publishers through 22 member organizations.
For every digitized page that goes online, the library pays a predetermined sum to Kopinor, which will be responsible for distributing the royalties among its members under a system that is still being worked out.
The per-page amount decreases gradually as the collection expands — from 0.36 kroner (€0.04, $0.06) last year to 0.33 kroner next year. "A bestseller is treated on an equal footing with a regional almanac from the 1930s," said Yngve Slettholm, head of Kopinor.
Some measures have been implemented to protect the authors: "Bokhylla" does not feature works published after 2000, access is limited to Internet users in Norway and foreign researchers, and the books cannot be downloaded.
An author or publishing house that objects can also request the removal of a book, but relatively few have done so.
Only 3,500 books have been removed from the list, and most of them are not bestselling novels, but rather school and children's books — two very profitable genres for publishers.
Among all the works eligible to appear on "Bokhylla" by household names Stephen King, Ken Follett, John Steinbeck, Jo Nesboe and Kari Fossum, only a few are missing.
So far, sales do not appear to have been affected by the project. Instead, "Bokhylla" often gives a second life to works that are still under copyright but sold out at bookshops, said National Library head Moe Skarstein.
"Books are increasingly becoming perishable goods," she said. "When the novelty effect fades out, they sink into oblivion."
Eight-five percent of all books available on the site have been accessed by users at some point, proving that digitizing does not only benefit major works.
While many countries' attempts at digital libraries have become stuck in complex copyright discussions, Norway has been successful partly due to the limited number of stakeholders — the library and Kopinor — and the near-universal coverage of their agreement, which even includes authors who are not Kopinor members.
"In other countries, you need an agreement among all the copyright holders," said Slettholm, the head of Kopinor. "But it's hard to find all of them: old authors that nobody knows, publishing houses that closed in the 1960s, every illustrator, every photographer."
"Instead of spending our money on trying to find the copyright holders, we prefer to give it to them," Moe Skarstein said.