French law on out of print works 'world first'

French law on out of print works 'world first'

France is claiming a world first with its imminent adoption of a new law that lays down the rules for scanning and selling orphan and other out-of-print 20th century books. 

Parliament is scheduled to vote on the text on 23rd February now that a compromise has been found in a disagreement between the two houses of parliament. The Senate had wanted orphan works to be offered free of charge across-the-board if copyright holders did not come forward within ten years, but the National Assembly rejected the idea. 

The compromise, hammered out by an all-party committee, will allow libraries to offer orphan works free after 10 years, while all other distributors will have to charge. Copyright or authors’ rights in France run out 70 years after the author’s death. 

Out-of-print titles, estimated at 500,000 to 700,000 or more and including some 20% orphan works, will be scanned from the French National Library (Bibliothèque Nationale de France, BnF) catalogue. The five-year operation will be financed by 40 million euros from the so-called Big Loan that was launched by the State in 2010  to help spur the economy after the 2008-2009 financial and economic crisis and will have to be reimbursed.

Publishers, authors or other rightsholders will be able to opt out within six months of a title being entered into a specially created BnF database. In the case of publishers, they would have to sign a new contract with authors and release the electronic versions within two years. 

"The difference with Google’s settlement is that they keep the proceeds for themselves, whereas our system will be imposed by law and involves no exclusivity clause," said Nicolas Georges, head of books and reading at the Culture Ministry. "There was huge scepticism about the project during the two years of negotiations, but in the end everyone was in agreement."

The scanned books, published in print form before Jan. 1, 2001, will be sold initially by a new subsidiary of the owner of Livres Hebdo, the Cercle de la Librairie, while other distributors may enter the market later on. The new venture will also be responsible for having the works scanned.  

Either the French Photocopy Rights Centre (CFC) or the authors collection agency Sofia will probably manage the rights and distribute the proceeds to publishers and authors. Revenues are predicted to reach 9 million euros by 2021 or 25 million euros if publisher sales are included.  

The government is now in talks with European Commission officials to obtain clearance for the new French law to take precedence in France over the forthcoming European directive on orphan works, which should be published before the end of June and covers only non-profit organisations. But Georges does not expect this to be a problem, especially as the draft French bill largely inspired the European guidelines on out-of-print works that were issued last September.