'We Don't Want to Stand in the Way of the Digital Era'

A publisher's associate fills shelves last week at the international book fair in Frankfurt, Germany. (Photo: Thomas Lohnes / AFP-Getty Images)

The German government wants the copyright laws to adapt to the digital era much to the dismay of publishers. It's been three years since controversial article 52a of the copyright law was introduced and the limited digital duplication of works made possible. Above all this, the law aimed at introducing new educational aids in schools and universities. The government ultimately wants to allow entire libraries to be digitalized and made available on computer screens.

German academic publishers are against this new law and are worried about its consequences. Georg Siebeck, head of academic publishers Mohr Siebeck and spokesperson for Publishers and Academics for a Fair Copyright, explains why.

Mr Siebeck, why do academic publishers feel threatened by the new copyright laws?

Article 52a allows university lecturers to digitalize a chapter of a textbook and post it on the intranet, either as a handout for students or for his international research colleges. According to the law, he need not register or declare such usage.

You also criticize the planned 52b article, which allows library books to be displayed in a digital format.

Initially, we supported this idea as a way of reinforcing a library's role in society. We are worried, however, about ownership issues because libraries can only digitalize books they own. In addition, we wanted to limit electronic access to digital copies of book. If a library is only able to make one copy of a book available, only one electronic copy should be made accessible. Both of these aspects seem to have been forgotten by the legislators.

The changes in the copyright laws reflect new European guidelines. Shouldn't these complaints rather be made to the European Commission in Brussels?

We have already appealed to them. The commission told us that they weren't too happy about the new guidelines either. They believe that Germany has gone too far, but they hinted that negotiations are underway. I think that Brussels might just overturn the ruling if the issue of ownership is not resolved.

Regarding your publishing activities, what worries you the most? Is it that you would invest a lot of money in a book, would sell one copy, and then that copy would subsequently be digitalized?

The worst-case scenario would even worse. By law, we have to supply not only the national but also the regional library with a copy free of charge. These copies could then be digitalized and made available in all libraries. Our whole business would be at risk.

This law is also particularly harsh on academic literature. A novel is read mostly for pleasure. The content of a textbook plays a very different role because it is not read in its entirety, but consulted in sections and for reference.

This is exactly why students still research in libraries.

If one day a student can look up a reference digitally, a whole new dimension comes into play. Besides, libraries do not welcome this evolution with great enthusiasm. Initially, this new law was offered as a shining new concept, but now the government is using the advent of digital books as a way to cut library funds. But that's not all. Libraries are already aware that they are in danger of becoming extinct given that nobody goes to libraries to read books anymore.

Up till now these new methods hardly seem to have had an effect, don't you think?

We know that they are being used but we don't know to what extent. Currently, the copyright laws are slowly being eroded. Soon the author will have no control over how his piece of work is used or portrayed. If his rights are taken away from him he is on a slippery slope and is threatened with expropriation. If this continues, our whole existence is at risk.

Even the large search engines are targeting the book market. Since September whole books can be downloaded via Google Books once their copyrights have been lifted. How are publishers supposed to react?

Google does not ask their permission and even digitalizes works that are still protected by copyrights and offers them a mere "opt-out" clause. This problem must be dealt with severely. The Association of German Publishers has also reacted strongly. One of their greatest projects is the "whole text online search." Internet users will be able to browse books belonging to German publishers using the large search engines right up until next year.

What sort of new model do you foresee for the publishing business?

It's feasible that Universities will apply for on-campus licenses for educational literature, where the price of these licenses will depend on the number of students studying a given subject. There will still be external readers and we will therefore print sections out. In the meantime, we just have to be careful and not cannibalize printed works with our digital versions. This is why the question of ownership is so important.

We don't want to stand in the way of digital era because the advantages of electronic search possibilities are considerable. Our task is ultimately to deliver important information and not to conceal it.