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Google Book Search creates a continental divide

Text by FRANCE 24 (with wires)

Latest update : 2009-09-09

Launched in 2004, Google Book Search seeks to digitize several of the world’s libraries and thousands of literary works. But the project is under fire from critics who hesitate at entrusting humanity's cultural treasures to an Internet behemoth.

The Enlightenment philosophers, with their dream of creating a universal encyclopedia of human knowledge, would surely have approved. From a reader’s point of view, the Google project to digitize the world’s libraries is certainly alluring. How could you not be intrigued by the ability to access, from the comfort of your own home, the first editions of works by the world's literary greats?

Nevertheless, in the eyes of certain European authors and editors, the American Internet giant is far from realising the goals of the Enlightenment. Some suspect that the global leader in search engines is more concerned with turnover than with great thought or literature.


In April 2009, nearly five years after having begun its digitization project, Google Book Search prided itself on already having scanned more than seven million copyright-free or discontinued books with the aim of giving them a second life on the Internet, often with the blessing of those holding the American rights.


After years of legal battles, Google, the American Association of Publishers and the Authors’ Guild in 2008 decided on a division of the income generated by the exploitation of digitized books. According to the terms of the compromise, Google gets 37 percent; authors and editors share the remainder.

Democratising access to knowledge

All this is not very reassuring to European rights holders who believe the US agreement will allow Google to profit from the sale of certain books, without authorization, under the pretext that they are no longer available on the other side of the Atlantic.


At the invitation of the European Commission, Google representatives were in Brussels on Monday to explain the project, which they present as a means of democratizing access to knowledge via the Internet. “It is important that [unavailable] books are not left to be abandoned,” said Dan Clancy, director of Google Book Search. “Google’s interest is in helping people rediscover these books.” Google promises that works published and marketed in Europe could only be sold in the United States in their electronic form with the express written consent of the rights holders.


“It’s a step in the right direction,” said a representative of the German publishers and booksellers association, Jessica Sänger, in an interview with Agence France Presse. “It shows that one can still alter the agreement concluded in the United States.” 


Paradoxically, it is the digitization of copyright-free works that most worries the critics of Google Book Search. First among them is the former president of the French National Library, Jean-Noël Jeanneney, who has little good to say about the recent announcements from his former employers. On August 18, the library’s executive vice president, Denis Bruckmann, announced in a column in the economic daily La Tribune that his institution – after a long period of resistance – had begun negotiations with Google on digitizing its collection of volumes.


It is a U-turn that the national library, which has already digitized some 250,000 works as part of its Gallica project, explains by citing the high cost of the programme. According to Bruckmann, “Digitizing the works originating from the French Republic alone would cost between 50 and 80 million euros.”

Digitization and its discontents

For Jeanneney, the idea of entrusting the Californian company with “the responsibility of choosing the books, the global rights to their digitized form and a quasi-exclusivity to indexing them on the Web, all in the service – directly or indirectly – of profit” is unbearable. Microsoft and Yahoo!, Google’s competitors, are similarly concerned that the leading global search engine will quickly have a monopoly on the digitization of literature.


For their part, the French authorities also expressed their concerns over the Google project. “There are many European works in the Google database [that] could allow the digitization of these items without the consent of their European authors,” observes Nicolas Georges, assistant director of the books department for the Ministry of Culture and Communication, which intends to submit its concerns to the US courts this week.


The day after Bruckmann’s announcement in La Tribune, France’s minister of culture, Frédéric Mitterrand, stated that the digitization of France’s literary heritage could only be undertaken along with “an absolute guarantee of national independence”.


For now, the Enlightenment dream of universal access to knowledge still seems a long way off.  


Date created : 2009-09-08