December 12, 2013

Norway commits to digitizing every single book in their National Library


A page from the 14th-century Magnus Lagabøters Landslov, one of the oldest books in the library's collection.

A page from the 14th-century Magnus Lagabøters Landslov, one of the oldest books in the library’s collection.

When the institutions that act as the repositories of record—the libraries that by law must receive one or multiple copies of every publication brought out in a certain country (a concept called “legal deposit”)—turn to thinking about digitizing their collections, the task is usually considered a enormous one, only possible to attempt in stages, and hampered by logistics, money, and copyright issues.

But Norway does not do things by half-measures. The National Library of Norway is in the midst of an initiative to digitize every single thing in their collections, on the sound but still mind-boggling principle that this is simply an extension of their reponsibilities as a legal deposit institution.

And one particularly interesting part of this project will be the site (“The Bookshelf”), where all books in the Library’s holdings will be made available to anyone with a Norwegian IP address, including books still under copyright. So basically, this is like Google Books, except all parties agreed on it: years of lawsuits and legal wrangles were avoided, readers will have access to the full text of books, and the apocalypse has not descended upon the nation of fjords and lutefisk simply because someone will be able to read Sophie’s World for free in a couple of years.

How did they do this? They make it look so easy. The summer before last, the Library came to an agreement with an organization called Kopinor that represents authors and publishers. Kopinor works on behalf of both publishers’ and authors’ associations, arranging for collective agreements on copying and digital use of copyrighted materials. For these uses, Kopinor collects and distributes payments, as it appears it will be doing for the books made available on, according to a quote from Kopinor’s Executive Director Yngve Slettholm in a press release when the deal was signed. Slettholm said:

I am happy that the rightsholders, through Kopinor, have been able to help make such a large portion of our literary heritage accessible…The agreement is unique, and an example of a forward thinking model for the management of copyright. The remuneration that will be paid, will go back to the creators and publishers, and thus contribute to the creation and publication of new works.

There were no further details about exactly what the payment system is like, but it may operate along the lines of the Public Lending Right, which is in place in the UK, Germany, and throughout Scandinavia. The Public Lending Right, an idea bitterly fought for in the ‘70s by writers such as Brigid Brophy and Maureen Duffy, means that authors are entitled to compensation (usually a very small amount) every time their books are taken out of a library, to offset the potential lost sales. Instead of libraries buying a copy outright, and that being the last time the copyright holder sees a profit from it until the copy falls apart, the PLR ties profit to each use of the book.

The PLR is not, and has never been very attractive to the US (for one thing, it directly contradicts the first sale doctrine), but it would actually come in handy right about now, when the whole concept of a library’s copy of a book and how long it might last has been thrown into question.

However Kopinor and the National Library of Norway have worked out the money, it appears to have satisfied all the stakeholders. There are also safeguards in place for copyrighted material that may have made the project more appealing: books that are under copyright won’t be able to be downloaded or printed, and they can be removed at the rightholder’s request.

Everything not under copyright will be available for download, and will be up on in 2017 as part of a starter collection of 250,000 books… which means that your Kristin Lavransdatter-binge-reading days are not far off.

Sal Robinson is an editor at Melville House. She's also the co-founder of the Bridge Series, a reading series focused on translation.