Columns Archive

Has Someone Hit the Delete Key on Canada’s Digitization Strategy?

Appeared in the Toronto Star on September 7, 2009 as Digitization of Canada's Heritage Left to Google

Digitization of books has become synonymous over the past year with the Google Book Search project and the class action lawsuit launched in response to the search giant's efforts to create an Internet-based library consisting of millions of books.  While the digitizing continues, the legal drama reaches an important stage tomorrow morning when a court in New York will close third-party submissions supporting or criticizing the settlement.

The attention on Google Book Search is understandable, yet it has distracted from the broader question of government supported digitization efforts. Many countries have not been content to leave the digitization of their culture and heritage to Google, instead embarking on plans to create their own digital libraries.  

Canada was once thought to be part of this group – national digitization working groups were established and a strategy seemed imminent – yet plans have languished to the point that it feels as if someone has hit the delete key on the prospect of a comprehensive Canadian digital library.

Canada's failure to keep pace was made readily apparent by the release late last month of a European consultation document on its digitization efforts.  In September 2005, the European Union launched i2010, a digitization action plan.  Several years later, Europeana debuted, a website that provides direct access to more than 4.6 million digitized books, newspapers, film clips, maps, photographs, and documents from across Europe.  The site plans to host 10 million objects by the end of next year.

The majority of the materials included to date are in the public domain – ie. they are no longer covered by copyright and can be used and accessed by all.  In fact, the European Commission has emphasized "works in the public domain should stay there once digitized and be made accessible through the Internet." It acknowledges, however, that this is not always the case since some groups claim rights to digitized copies of public domain works or charge for downloads.

The European consultation document grapples with difficult issues such as guaranteeing access to public domain works and identifying ways to improve access to works that are still subject to copyright protection but are out-of-print, or for which the copyright owner cannot be located.

By comparison, Canada seems stuck at the digitization starting gate.  Library and Archives Canada was given responsibility for the issue but was unable to muster the necessary support for a comprehensive plan.  The Department of Canadian Heritage, which would seem like a natural fit for a strategy designed to foster access to Canadian works, has funded a handful of small digitization efforts but has shown little interest in crafting a vision similar to Europeana.

Digitization law and policies have also gone missing-in-action. The national copyright consultation wraps up next week, but the digitization issue has scarcely been raised.  

The European Commissioner for Information Society and Media Vivian Reding has called for the creation of "a modern set of European rules that encourage the digitization of books."  Yet in Canada, few have placed the spotlight on the legal barriers to creating a national digital library. These include the danger associated with extending the term of copyright or providing overbroad legal protection for digital locks that could render Canadian culture inaccessible.

Supporters once talked about the dream of a national digital library comprised of every Canadian book ever published.  Years later, they are still dreaming.

Michael Geist holds the Canada Research Chair in Internet and E-commerce Law at the University of Ottawa, Faculty of Law. He can reached at or online at

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