European court rules that libraries can digitize books

The European Union's highest court has ruled that libraries can digitize books without the permission of copyright holders. The court argues that libraries have the right to provide free information to the public and don't need to obtain licensing if they want to make books available to users through their computer systems. 

Geert Vanden Wijngaert/AP
The interior of the Leuven University Library in Leuven, Belgium.

Libraries in Europe can now digitize books and make them available at electronic reading terminals without the permission of copyright holders, according to a ruling by The Court of Justice of the European Union.

The European Union’s (EU) highest court ruled on this issue on Thursday after it received a case in which a German university, the Technical University of Darmstadt, digitized a book but refused to obtain licensing from its publishing house, Eugen Ulmer.

The EU’s Copyright Directive grants authors and publishers the right to authorize or prohibit the reproduction of published work. But the court cited an exception to the Copyright Directive, arguing that libraries have the right to provide free information to the public, and ruled in favor of the university.

“The right of libraries to communicate, by dedicated terminals, the works they hold in their collections would risk being rendered largely meaningless, or indeed ineffective, if they did not have an ancillary right to digitize the works in question,” the court said in a press release.

In its ruling, the court specified that while users can access digitized books for free within a library, they do not have permission to print out digitized works or download and transport them via USB stick.

The case will now return to the Federal Court of Justice of Germany, who will rule on the dispute based on the high court’s decision.  

As we previously reported, in the US, a court also recently ruled on a case involving a dispute over digitized books. In November of 2013, US Circuit Judge Denny Chin dismissed a lawsuit that the Author’s Guild brought against Google over the partial digitization of over 20 million books.

The Author’s Guild believed Google’s digitization violated “fair use” under U.S. copyright law.

“Google made unauthorized digital editions of nearly all of the world's valuable copyright-protected literature and profits from displaying those works,” Authors Guild Executive Director Paul Aiken said.

But Judge Chin ruled in favor of Google and argued that its service, Google Books, provides access of information to underserved groups who wouldn’t otherwise have it while respecting authors’ rights.

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