Most books published in Norwaybefore 2001 are going online for free thanks to an initiative that may have found the formula to reconcile authors with the web. At a time when the publishing world is torn over its relationship to the Internet — which has massively expanded access to books but also threatens royalty revenues — the National Library of Norway is digitising tens of thousands of titles, from masterworks by Nobel laureate Knut Hamsun to the first detective novels by Nordic noir king Jo Nesboe.
The copyright-protected books are available free online — with the consent of the copyright holders — at the website bokhylla.no (“bookshelf” in Norwegian). The site currently features 135,000 works and will eventually reach 250,000, including Norwegian translations of foreign books. For every digitised page that goes online, the library pays a predetermined sum to Kopinor, which will be responsible for distributing the royalties among its members under a system that is still being worked out. The per-page amount decreases gradually as the collection expands — from 0.36 kroner (0.04 euros, $0.06) last year to 0.33 kroner next year.
Some measures have been implemented to protect the authors: “Bokhylla” does not feature works published after 2000, access is limited to Internet users in Norway and foreign researchers, and the books cannot be downloaded. An author or publishing house that objects can also request the removal of abook, but relatively few have done so. Only 3,500 books have been removed from the list, and most of them are not bestselling novels, but rather school and children’s books — two very profitable genres for publishers.
Books are increasingly becoming perishable goods. When the novelty effect fades out, they sink into oblivion.
Eight-five percent of all books available on the site have been accessed by users at some point, proving that digitising does not only benefit major works. While many countries’ attempts at digital libraries have gotten stuck in complex copyright discussions, Norway has been successful partly due to the limited number of stakeholders — the library and Kopinor — and the near-universal coverage of their agreement, which even includes authors who are not Kopinor members. In other countries, you need an agreement among all the copyright holders.
But it’s hard to find all of them: old authors that nobody knows, publishing houses that closed in the 1960s, every illustrator, every photographer. Instead of spending our money on trying to find the copyright holders, we prefer to give it to them.