EU court rules libraries can digitise books without permission

by Terrence O’Brien

The Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) has ruled that libraries have the right to digitise books and distribute them to dedicated reading terminals without first obtaining the publisher’s permission. The decision rests on exceptions built into the EU Copyright Directive for reproducing and communicating intellectual property. Specifically it says that publicly accessible libraries may make works available at “dedicated terminals… for the purpose of research or private study.” German publisher Eugen Ulmer, which filed the suit in question against the Technical University of Darmstadt, can’t be happy with the result. But, the court didn’t hand libraries a blank check to freely pass around digitised content either. The law still prevents these digitized copies from being stored on USB keys or printed out. Under the Copyright Directive, the act of printing or storing the files would mean the individual, not the library, was making the copy — which would violate the law.

The decision is sure to generate plenty of controversy. In fact, the issue of digitizing books has had a long history of stirring up trouble. In the US, Google ran afoul of publishers and authors when it attempted to put digitally scanned versions of books online and make them searchable. And publishers have been trying to milk every dollar they can out of libraries that “lend” e-books. This is probably not the last time that a publishing company is going to drag a library or educational organization in front of a judge, either. But at least in Europe, there’s now a slightly clearer precedent for dealing with such conflicts.