Europe vs. Google: The Next Chapter

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Carlos Osorio / AP

A scanner passes over a book as part of Google Inc.'s project to create digital versions of all the estimated 50 million to 100 million books in the world

Google may be valued at more than $185 billion and boast millions of users, but that doesn't mean the Internet giant is any match for the diminutive French President Nicolas Sarkozy. On Dec. 8, Sarkozy warned Google he would not allow France to be "stripped" of its literary heritage, an apparent reference to Google's enormous book-digitizing project. "We won't let ourselves be stripped of our heritage to the benefit of a big company, no matter how friendly, big or American it is," Sarkozy said during a round-table discussion in eastern France. "We are not going to be stripped of what generations and generations have produced in the French language, just because we weren't capable of funding our own digitization project."

Sarkozy's oratorical histrionics are becoming a regular occurrence. But the French President isn't the only European David ready to stand up to the Internet Goliath and its formidable archiving project. Last October, German Chancellor Angela Merkel reiterated concerns held by many German publishers. The German government, she said, rejected "the scanning of books without any copyright protection like Google is doing. We refuse to permit simple scanning of books without full protection of intellectual-property rights." The French and German complaints are part of a growing move in the European Union to head off Google's mass digitization of literature. "It is not up to any individual organization to determine policy on a matter as important as the digitization of our global heritage," French Culture Minister Frédéric Mitterrand told the Journal du Dimanche following a meeting of his E.U. peers in late November to discuss a united, state-led approach to the matter. "I'm not going to leave this issue up to simple laissez-faire."

Google has already digitized some 10 million books — most of them "public domain" works that are out of print, or books whose copyright owners are unknown. Google's strategy thus far appears to have been to scan first, and deal with any copyright issues later — a method that worries authors and publishers. Justice authorities in the U.S. and in Europe have warned Google that it should not secure a monopoly position that would allow it to single-handedly dictate how much the public must pay to access many of the world's great books.

Google and its backers — which include industrial partner Sony as well as libraries in the U.S. and Europe — argue that the company brings rare books often only obtainable by students, scholars and researchers to the general public online for free. It says it's also setting aside funding to pay to unknown copyright owners who step up and ask for remuneration, or remove works by those who don't want to be in Google's archive.

Opponents — these include several European governments and publishers, and the Open Access Alliance formed by authors and Google rivals like Yahoo! and Microsoft — describe that as a kind of massive, literary landgrab which ignores copyright concerns until owners demand they be paid or their books removed. They also fear Google's initially free search-and-access service will give way to a pay scheme. Confusing matters further, libraries, publishers and writers in both the U.S. and Europe are split in pro- and anti-Google Book camps.

The California-based giant has already made some concessions to publishers. Under a pending settlement reached with U.S. publishers' groups, Google has agreed to limit its archiving to works that have been registered in the U.S., or come from the U.K., Australia, and Canada — English-speaking countries whose authors are present in American libraries. That agreement would nominally exclude books from countries like France and Germany, and from China, which has also objected to the digitization project on copyright grounds. Still, the accord must be approved by a U.S. federal court review in February — not a slam-dunk affair, given the American Justice Department's concerns that the agreement still breaks "fundamental copyright principles."

Google has another court date it is preparing for. Paris publishing group La Martinière took Google to court after it discovered the firm had scanned and archived books on which La Martinière holds the copyright. It's asking for $15 million in damages for the violation. If it wins — a ruling is expected on Dec. 18 — the case will help set an important legal precedent on Google's approach. Google France declined to comment on the court case, but noted its scanning work with 30 libraries and 30,000 private publishers has provoked little legal challenge. Could that change soon? "We feel confident we'll win on the most important legal points in this case, which is important to establish precedent awaiting the U.S. hearing in February," notes Tessa Destais, an adviser to Le Martinière. "We're not anti-Google — it's a wonderful company. We're simply insisting it obey copyright laws, and start negotiating with publishers as partners."