Google fights the French resistance

Boyd Tonkin
Saturday 22 October 2011 22:58

Has the French resistance begun to crumble? When Google unveiled its Book Search project in late 2004, no country protested louder against this digital battering-ram of "Anglo-Saxon" hegemony than France.

As well as the "partner program" by which Google scans copyright titles to make sample pages available for browsing, the Californian behemoth set up agreements with leading academic libraries. They aimed to make out-of-copyright collections accessible online. From the Bodleian in Oxford to the New York Public Library, the princes of the Anglo-American stacks agreed (although the British Library cut its own deal with Microsoft).

The French alternative – Gallica 2 – went live in March, but with a tiny database of 62,000 volumes. Elsewhere, from Bavaria to Barcelona, destination libraries have begun to fall under the Google spell. Three years ago, I watched Jens Redmer, head of Google Book Search in Europe, mesmerise a bunch of publishers at a conference in a suitably James Bond-ish resort hotel in Greece. Ernst Stavro Blofeld himself could not have chilled them more. "There's no evil masterplan behind this," Redmer assured us. The literary custodians of Old Europe clearly suspected there was, even if they reacted to the promise (or threat) of mass digitisation with all the resolve of a chicken coop when Mr Fox calls.

Now even France has started to succumb. The municipal library in Lyon – the second largest in the land – has signed up with Google Book Search to digitise half a million titles already in the public domain. Gérard Collomb, the mayor of Lyon (and a Socialist, by the way), enthuses that internet access "allows us to open our doors to the rest of the world". Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin could not have put it more succinctly.

Yet the objections, and the objectors, persist. In his recent polemic Google and the Myth of Universal Knowledge (University of Chicago Press, £7), Jean-Noel Jeanneney – former president of the French national library – fired a widely-heard broadside across the Atlantic. He took aim at Google's "spontaneous prioritising of things that fit into the American vision of the world", but unfortunately did so with all the chauvinistic condescension that a Parisian mandarin can muster. Which is a lot.

Euro-snobbery aside, the doubts that he raised stay mostly unresolved. Google at present may insist that "we're not evil" and aspire to safeguard the principle of free access to non-copyright material. But a profit-driven company can't dictate its own future. The dangers of outsourcing public access to a share price-dependent corporation remain huge. As for books still in copyright, Google's online extracts have stretched the concept of "fair use" almost to breaking point – beyond, some argue. "Behind its majesty," as Jeanneney put it, "Google is hiding frailties." Any publisher or library that shares files with it should grasp that today's top dog can become tomorrow's pariah.

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