Home EU Report Warns of “Digital Dark Age” if Digitization of Cultural Heritage Left to Private Sector

EU Report Warns of “Digital Dark Age” if Digitization of Cultural Heritage Left to Private Sector

The European Union says its member states must do more to digitize Europe’s cultural heritage and not simply leave that work to the private sector. To do otherwise, suggests a recently commissioned report, could steer Europe away from a digital Renaissance and “into a digital dark age.”

The report by the “Comité des Sages” was delivered to the European Commission earlier this week and calls for continued development of Europeana, the portal to Europe’s digital libraries, as well as for efforts to expand access to public domain material. EU member states must ensure that all material that’s digitized with public funding is available online and that all public domain masterpieces are available via Europeana by 2016. Works that are still covered by copyright but are no longer distributed commercially need to be brought online as well, and if the rights holders do not do so, cultural institutions must have the opportunity to digitize the material and make it available to the public.

“We are of the opinion that the public sector has the primary responsibility for making our cultural heritage accessible and preserving it for future generations,” the report argues. “This responsibility for and control over Europe’s heritage cannot be left to one or a few market players, although we strongly encourage the idea of bringing more private investments and companies into the digitisation arena through a fair and balanced partnership.”

That’s an oblique reference to Google, whose efforts to digitize the world’s books have caused some concerns in Europe over copyright issues and licensing agreements. The report notes that Google has digitized about 15 million of the world’s 130 million unique books and has entered into exclusivity agreements with some institutions. The report urges agreements of this sort between the private sector and public cultural institutions to be made public, with the preferential use for the digitized material to be kept to a maximum of seven years.

The report does recognize the importance of these private efforts and says that EU member states need to find a way to match private investment and build partnerships with private companies. But as the report notes, “Can Europe afford to be inactive and wait, or leave it to one or more private players to digitise our common cultural heritage? Our answer is a resounding ‘no’.”

Photo credits: Trinity College Library via Plants Need Water

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