Google and the Italian Culture Ministry have signed an agreement for the digitization of books held in Italy's two main national libraries, the first such pact between the U.S. company and a national government, the two sides announced Wednesday.
"Google Books will digitize at least 1 million books that are not covered by copyright and that constitute our cultural heritage," Mario Resca, director general for development at the Culture Ministry, said at a press conference in Rome.
Works by authors such as Dante, Machiavelli, Petrarch, Leopardi and Manzoni, whose ideas helped to forge Western culture, will be included in the project, which will scan public domain books published prior to 1868, before modern copyright law came about.
The non-exclusive agreement would make books available immediately and free of charge to people around the world, both on the Google Internet platform and on platforms controlled by the participating Italian libraries, Resca said.
The project, which begins with the scanning of books held in the national libraries in Rome and Florence, is expected to stimulate interest in Italian culture and a love of reading, Resca said. Google will create a scanning center that will employ around 100 people and the project will result in a saving of some US$100 million for the Italian government, he said.
Nikesh Arora, Google's president for global sales operations and business development, said the project reflected the vision of Google's founders "to organize the world's information and make it available to everyone." The Italian project would help to counter the current Anglo-centric bias of the Internet, Arora added.
"We all know knowledge is power. I grew up in India and I had to wait three months for a fellow student to return a book to the library before I could study for an exam," Arora said. "Coupled with our initiative around translations, we believe we can unleash this culture for people around the world."
The expertise of the Culture Ministry and library partners in Italy would be crucial for the selection of the most important works for inclusion in the project, Arora said. "The risk in the future is not too little information but too much information," he said.
Arora disputed Resca's price tag for the project. "$100 million is not our number. It will take us a lot, lot less. We have the most efficient technology in terms of digitization," he said. Google will not be setting advertisements against the books, Arora said. "Users come to us because they know they'll find what they're looking for on the Internet. The effort is to get to comprehensiveness, and it's hard to put a price on comprehensiveness," the Google executive said. The Google Books project already has more than 40 major libraries participating around the world, Arora said.
Arora also addressed the U.S. controversy over Google's digitization of "orphan works," which are covered by copyright but for which the copyright owners have not been traced and have not provided authorization.
"The conversation is specific to the orphan works in the United States. We have taken feedback from various interested groups and the government and are modifying the agreement to try and find a solution," Arora said.
In the U.S., the Department of Justice (DOJ) has come out against an agreement to settle copyright lawsuits brought against Google's book-scanning project by authors and publishers. The DOJ's criticisms are being reviewed by a judge.
Sandro Bondi, the Italian culture minister, said the books project demonstrated that the Internet was the opposite of a sinister, Orwellian force. Rather than spying on everybody, it was extending knowledge and culture to everyone, for free.
"A universal library has always been the dream of humanity. This utopia is now becoming a reality," Bondi said.