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The Digitisation of Literary Works: is Google Above the Law?

Google gets its hands on Lyon’s public library

Translated Friday 20 November 2009, by Karen Grimwade

Debate over the digitisation of books [1] belonging to the Bibliothèque nationale de France (French national library) has been raging since the summer. Although most people agree as to the advantages of the project – avoiding damage to old books and making them available online – it is the terms of the agreement between Google and the library that are the subject of debate.

Supporters of the American giant point out the savings for taxpayers, Google’s industrial capacities in this field (suggesting that local companies would be incapable of fulfilling these requirements), and the availability of digital books for the public. Opponents denounce the creation of a monopoly and a stranglehold over France’s cultural heritage. These arguments all the more relevant given that Google recently announced its plans to sell books online.

The stakes are enormous! How much will our children have to pay for a book in a few years if Google holds exclusive rights to millions of titles? What power will a teacher have when negotiating with Google the purchase of documents within a certain historical period if the company holds all the rights to publications in that period? How will the thousands of bookshops and publishers currently in business survive? At the moment the coexistence of public libraries and bookshops guarantees a diversity of choice. The arrival of digital books will upset this balance. And there is no longer any doubt that the younger generations will soon read with digital book readers.

This debate requires complete transparency. There is a precedent in France: the City of Lyon signed an agreement with Google in 2008. Over the last few months Lyon’s public library, the second largest in France, has given several interviews. In the columns of Le Monde, the library’s manager indicated that the contract signed with Google extended over several years, and on France 2 (French national television network) put the cost at €60 million, or €120 per title. This information comes as a surprise given that the amount is two or three times higher than that announced two years ago by the president of the Bibliothèque nationale de France. Furthermore, according to a report from Lyon city council, the contract with Google is set to run for…..twenty-five years! The same mystery surrounds the benefits accorded to the Californian giant, which claims it merely wants to transmit culture! The aforementioned report stipulates that Google will have full ownership of the digital books.

In order to find out the truth, we asked Lyon city hall for the documents pertaining to the deal concluded with Google, documents which should normally be public. And surprise, surprise, they refused to communicate this information. We also posed several questions to Google France, in particular concerning the number of French titles available on Google Books. The response was negative! Google claims not to know how many books are in French! A number that is certainly below the number of books made available online by the national library: an industrial digitisation project carried out by European companies at a rate of 100,000 titles per year, for the Gallica project alone. The only difference with Google is that these companies are paid for the services they supply and do not receive rights to the books. Google’s refusal is almost laughable! Google Books’ advanced search engine makes it possible to search for books in French.

Additionally, the Californian company has announced that the location of the centre responsible for digitising books from Lyon’s library is a secret! Anyone would think we were in a James Bond film! This refusal is, however, legal. That of Lyon’s city hall poses a more serious question. According to city hall, a clause was signed forbidding them from giving access to the contract documents signed with Google. They even refuse to reveal information that the Commission for Access to Administrative Documents has stated can be communicated without reserve! We will say it again; debate on such an important issue requires transparency, in particular regarding costs, contract duration, legal benefits and their real consequences. We should demand to be told the truth on all of these points and that rules be obeyed! Lest we think that Google is above the law.

[1(A project currently underway, known as Gallica, digitises 100,000 books belonging to the Bibliothèque nationale de France per year. This three year project will end in September 2010.)

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