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France Plans to Digitize & Sell Out of Print Books, Including Works by Ellison, Silverberg, Le Guin, & More

ReLIRETypopixelphrase[1]France’s national digitization project moved one step closer to fruition this week with the release of a list of 60,000 out of print works to be digitized and released as commercial ebooks.

The list is the work of ReLIRE, a new division of the Bibliothèque National de France. ReLire was created and authorized by the French Parliament in February 2012 with the purpose of identifying out of print titles from the the 20th century, digitizing them, and getting them back into the market.

The list of titles that was released this week is merely the first of the works that could be digitized, and ReLire will likely be releasing new lists in the future.

Update: Here is a later post with a more detailed look at the issues surrounding ReLire.

Digitization projects like the HathiTrust and Google Books have been getting a lot of attention in the press, but for some time now I have been neglecting to mention similar projects going on right now in other countries. My lack of coverage is troubling because projects like ReLire in France can affect authors in the US and around the world just as much as HathiTrust project.

For example, the list that was released this week includes works not just by French authors and illustrators, but also works by a number of American SF authors.  The list is garbled and a little hard to navigate, but one eagle-eyed blogger noticed that there is at least one anthology of translated SF stories included, and after a little digging she identified the authors who had contributed:

  • George Alec Effinger : La guerre à finir toutes les guerres (All The Last Wars At Once)
  • James Sallis : Ceux qui font l’histoire (The History Makers)
  • Harlan Ellison : Toute une vie, dont une enfance pauvre (One Life, Furnished in Early Poverty)
  • Robert Silverberg : Dans les crocs de l’entropie (In Entropy’s Jaws)
  • Gordon Eklund : Memphis, par un été torride (White Summer in Memphis)
  • R. A. Lafferty : Grinçantes charnières du monde (Groaning Hinges of the World)
  • Ursula K. Le Guin : Ceux qui partent d’Omelas, variations sur un thème de William James (The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas)
  • Gene Wolfe : La mort du doctor Ile (The Death of Doctor Island)
  • Roger Zelazny : Nuit sans lune à Byzance (Moonless in Byzantium)
  • James Tiptree, Jr. : Le plan est l’amour, le plan est la mort (Love Is the Plan the Plan Is Death)
  • Samuel R. Delany : Le temps considéré comme une hélice de pierres semi-précieuses (Time Considered as a Helix of Semi-Precious Stones)
  • Vonda McIntyre : De source, sève et sable (Of Mist, and Grass, and Sand)

Many of the original English stories that were translated for this anthology had won awards, including Hugo, Locus, Nebula. Some had even won 3 or 4 awards, so they are not exactly forgotten works. And since the anthology is long out of print, the rights have reverted to the authors.

I’m not reporting on this list to criticize the French govt for this project, but I do want to warn authors that they need to start paying attention. In 6 months time the titles on this list will be digitized, handed over to a collection society, and released on to the ebook market.

Come September 2013, any unclaimed title still on the list will be made available as an ebook. Any revenue from sales will be managed on behalf of the copyright holder by a collection society. It’s not clear to me exactly how an author would go about getting the money that is held for them, but it is clear that compensating the creator is part of the plan.

If you’re wondering why I am writing about this with such dispassion, let me explain. First, I like digitization projects, especially involuntary ones like this. It acts as a goad for creators to do something about their out of print backlist, and that is a good thing.

I have some highly valued paper books in my collection that I don’t dare use because they are out-of print and not available as ebooks.

Take Illegal Aliens, for example. This is a 1989 SF novel by Nick Pollotta. It’s a farce with a writing quality on the level of Terry Pratchett, but due to the relative obscurity of the author and the original publisher it was almost impossible to find in print. I recall that the only copies I could find on Amazon in 2009 cost $50 or more. And that is for a cheap-quality paperback.

Fortunately this book was released as an ebook in 2010 (Nook, Kindle), forcing me to find another title to hold up as an example, but the fact remains that while it was out of print this book might as well not exist. I find that condition to be a greater tragedy than the government of France running roughshod over the rights of creators.

And I am also less than enraged by ReLire because collection societies are not exactly a new concept, and the same goes for involuntary licenses. For example, I was reminded about a month ago that there are many countries have compulsory copying levies. In those countries companies and schools pay a fee a govt agency to cover the copies they might make of copyrighted works. AccessCopyright of Canada is one such society, but it’s not the only one. Most countries have similar collection societies for music performance rights, including ASCAP here in the US, and in many circumstances those collection societies are assumed to speak for content creators (until proven otherwise).

I’m not pointing out the existing collection societies as a justification for the law that was passed in France, but I do want everyone to understand the context before freaking out.

In any case, this law has already been passed and the project has already begun. Now is the time to deal with the current situation rather than complaining about how we got here.

Authors who have works that have been published in France should check to see if they have a title on this list. And when the next lists are released, you’ll need to check them as well. You can find more info on the ReLire website.

I strongly urge authors to check for their works; I’m told that the registry maintained by ReLire is deeply flawed. Some of the issues include:

  • Authors whose works are included in anthologies will not be able to find these anthologies by searching for their name in the author field.
  • Several authors have found their works contained in the registry despite having already reclaimed their rights from the publisher and even though the books in question are still available (in some cases online).
  • Several authors have found their works on the list to be digitized (and rights turned over to a collective agency) although high-quality digital editions of them are already available on-line. (The cash-strapped French government apparently isn’t worried about putting unnecessary money into re-digitizing currently available digital books.)
  • A number of typos have already been discovered in the registry. It’s hard to know how many authors may not find their books simply because their name was misspelled.

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TheSFReader April 7, 2013 um 4:04 pm

Yes, the list is far from perfect, with the anthologies as an example among others.
Not to disminish other texts, but (also in the database) contains "an unknown work from an unknown author" : , which gave way to two movie adaptations : Total Recall (and its remake last year). How do you say ? Ooops ?

laura April 7, 2013 um 5:52 pm

Thanks for this neutral report. I think that’s needed, and I’m sure English-speakers will find it useful. On the other hand, I will point out that some French legal experts believe that the legislation that paved the way for digitization of the books in ReLIRE is unconstitutional. The debate in the French-speaking community is very passionate, and I suspect we haven’t heard the last of it.

the rodent April 7, 2013 um 8:00 pm

> while it was out of print this book
> might as well not exist. I find that
> condition to be a greater tragedy

This I really agree with. I seek out and read many obscure books that are out of print and whenever they aren’t actually "impossible to find" they usually thus cost an arm and a leg on the used market. If the author were being screwed out of rightful revenue I’d be really really sympathetic. But nearly all the time in a case like this the author, if not dead, would get nothing anyway even though I may go through an eye-popping transaction with a used bookstore. Viva la France.

It’s the same with music, by the way. Just try to find a copy of "Maynard G and the Krebs". 🙂

LCNR April 8, 2013 um 4:12 am

In addition to the flaws you list in your post, here is a summary of other serious issues
? with the ReLIRE database? as I understand it:

– The process was practically completed (outside public scrutiny)? before it was? what looks like? rubber-stamped by the French parliament (the law was enacted on 01 March 2013?, the "Scientific Committee" charged with implementing the ReLIRE database was set up on 20 March,? and the first list of works was published ?online ?on 21 March).

– The law violates the unassignable moral right that French law grants authors (among other things, authors have a right to decide not to re-publish a work once ?they have reclaimed their rights).

– The chosen system is that of "opt-out" ?which is unfair and ?which, ?incidentally, ?when put forward by Google for its mass digitization program, caused an outcry in France, including
?on the part of those now imposing it with ReLIRE.

– The system has been set up so as to incorporate not only out-of-print works ("?oeuvres ?indisponibles") but also orphan works ("?oeuvres ?orphelines").? Indeed, ReLIRE was a rush job not only to be published in time for the Salon du Livre (the French book fair) but also to circumvent the EU directive on orphan works that allows public libraries to digitize orphan works and make them freely available to the public (instead, under the new law, publishers can exploit the rights of such works exclusively for an extra ten years).

– Taxpayers are going to be paying twice for a digitization program that, from a pecuniary point of view, is going to benefit first and foremost publishers (?not only will ?
the first ?10,000? "out-of-print" works be digitized with public money originally ear-marked for the digitization of public-domain works, public libraries will in addition have to pay for access to the digitized titles).

– Additionally, this is only the last of a series of recent digitization deals the BnF is involved in that seem to have been made to the exclusive benefit of the BnF and private parties and to the detriment of taxpayers (see the partnership with Proquest in particular, where ?the French people – but not the BnF – got the worst deal in the entire EU).

There is a detailed analysis (in French) on calimaq’s blog ( – including counter-arguments by a publisher in the comments (and calimaq’s counter-counter-arguments in a further post). That post also includes links to further articles, blogs, etc.


Bill Peschel April 8, 2013 um 8:45 am

So if I walk into your home and use your dishes, that’s all right if I leave a couple of pennies on the table?

The problem is not with the outcome, but the process. Authors are not asked if they want their work rereleased. Authors do not get a say in what they’ll get paid. Authors barely know that this is happening and how they can respond to it. It’s completely out of their control.

So, yes, we should bitch about the process. We should criticize these grasping bureaucrats spending taxpayers' dollars on a business that’s none of their concern. We should criticize the thieves at the Bibliothèque National de France for the shoddy way it’s treating the people it should be cherishing. We need to slap them down to keep them from doing this again.

Nate Hoffelder April 8, 2013 um 8:59 am

That comparison is so false as to be nonsensical.

TheSFReader April 8, 2013 um 10:01 am

Yes, the comparison is nonsensical.
But Bill is right in his second paragraph, and parts of the third.

Actually, part of the BNF’s stated role is to protect books and conserve them for the future, near, or far. And digitization is a good way to protect them. Also, digitizing "orphan" and Public Domain works is fully in their role, even with the taxpayer’s money (here it’s euros, not dollars 😉 ).

But, where he’s again right, is that the law as passed (of which the BnF as such is not responsible, even if it’s one of its proponents) treats authors, some publishers, and readers badly, havng all the profit to a few.

I think a firm "slap" on the hand by "foreign" people could help having that law removed.

Acts of Piracy: the ReLire project could be robbing authors of their rights | April 13, 2013 um 6:49 pm

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