‘Libraries can digitize books in EU without permission’

The Advocate General of the European Court of Justice believes that in some cases public libraries in the EU are allowed to digitize books in their possession and have them printed by visitors without the permission of the rightholder.

The Bundesgerichtshof, the German Federal Court of Justice, is currently dealing with a case between the Technical University of Darmstadt and publisher Eugen Ulmer KG. In that case, the German court has requested the judgment of the European Court of Justice. The university has digitized a book it owns, the copyrights of which belong to Eugen Ulmer. Now the university wants to give visitors the opportunity to print out the book via special electronic reading points within the university library and also to save the digital version on a USB stick.

According to Niilo Jääskinen, Advocate General of the European Court of Justice, the current copyright directives oblige member states to give authors the exclusive right to allow or prevent reproduction of their work. However, there are special exceptions for public libraries. Works in their possession can be made available through special terminals for research and private study purposes.

The exceptions allow public libraries to digitize and print works in some cases, according to Jääskinen. This should be allowed if it is necessary to protect the original work because it is old, fragile or rare. Libraries would also be allowed to digitize books if a large number of students copy the work with a copier. That many copies could cause disproportionate damage to the book. However, he emphasizes that it is not the intention to digitize entire collections. According to Jääskinen, it is important that the terminals do not lead to a significant drop in sales.

He also states in his advice that public libraries should not give visitors the opportunity to save the digitized version on a USB stick. In his opinion, saving the digital version on a USB stick is not essential to avoid disproportionate damage to works. Doing so would violate the authors’ exclusive right to allow or prevent reproduction of their work.

He goes on to say that printing works digitized by the library in some cases also falls under one of the exceptions of the guidelines. If printing the digitized version is labeled as a private copy, it is comparable to making a photocopy of the original, according to Jääskinen. In this case, according to Jääskinen, printing is legal. An Advocate General’s opinion is not binding on the European Court of Justice, but the opinions are often adopted. The European Court of Justice is currently considering the case and will make a decision shortly.

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