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A French Fight Against Google

Alasdair Sandford (jam)April 9, 2005

Some call it Victor Hugo vs. Harry Potter; it's almost certainly David vs. Goliath. The strong man is the Internet search engine Google. The underdog: a top French librarian who doesn't want Anglo-American domination.

A threat to continental European culture?Image: dpa

The magic of the boy wizard cast the same spell in France as it did around the world. Harry Potter's latest adventures in the third of the series of films made the British-American movie one of the most popular in France last year. Indeed, the French have long embraced Hollywood blockbusters. But, at the same time they've made sure their own big-screen productions get enough help to leave their mark.

"We feel that in cultural matters, a kind of combined influence of the market on one hand and the state on one hand gives the better possible world," said Jean-Noel Jeanneney, the director of the French National Library. "It's because of that philosophy that we've kept the cinema in France."

Saving European heritage

Now Jean-Noel Jeanneney wants to apply the same medicine to the world of books. As director of France's premier library, he has a vested interest. The national library's huge glass towers by the banks of the River Seine were built to commemorate Francois Mitterand’s time in office and contain much of France's proud literary heritage.

But Jeanneney warns that that heritage may gather dust like books on the library shelves. He points to a project across the Atlantic by the world’s best-known search engine, Google.

Suchmaschine Google
Image: AP

A new project, Google Print, aims to make 15 million English-language books available on the Internet. He said he worries that the project could prove dangerous if the American search site goes it alone: "Multilateralism we feel in diplomacy and in culture is always better than the domination of only one pole, one power," he said. "The choice of the books to be digitized will be impregnated by the Anglo-Saxon atmosphere."

Google Print plans to put books online from five prestigious American and British universities. Although Jeanneney finds that troublesome, some others do not.

Students at the French University Press stand at this year's Salon du Livre – the 25th Paris Book Fair, where Russian literature has been the theme, don't understand the fuss. "It's not only for Americans," said one male student. "The Internet is international so it's for all students of the world."

"I don't know why it would be a problem," said one young woman.

European alternative

When the American secretary of state Condoleezza Rice recently visited Paris, she talked of cooperation over Iraq in her speech. She also mentioned the French revolution, describing how she’d attended its bicentenary in 1989.

Jean-Noel Jeanneney oversaw the celebrations, and as a historian he warns that Google Print will lead to the world seeing events such as the revolution exclusively through Anglo-American eyes. He wants Europe to launch its own Google-like project.

"I don’t want a French answer, I want a European answer," he said. "I want a collaboration of the main libraries, universities and cultural establishments all over Europe."

Mr Jeanneney’s call has struck a chord with French President Jacques Chirac. The French leader held a meeting with the National Library director and agreed that France should lead a European project similar to Google’s and is due to discuss the plan with EU ministers in May. But the idea has brought about an early warning from an unexpected source, Serge Eyrolles, the president of the Paris Book Fair.

Authors' rights

He says no one has mentioned authors’ rights when talking about putting books online. He forecasts similar problems over royalties to those experienced by the music industry in the internet age:

Leipziger Buchmesse Bücher Skulptur
Image: AP

"The debate isn’t whether it’s European or American or whatever," he said. "The debate is about knowing which operator will respect the rules that apply in our country. If it’s the French National Library, then fine. If it’s Google, that’s fine too. We’re not against technical innovation. But we do need to protect our authors’ rights."

The early works to be digitized are likely to be old history books and literary classics whose authors are long dead. In the short term authors’ rights should be less of a problem than which works to choose. For Jeanneney, the task is how to convince his American rivals that his European mission is not, as has been reported, about declaring cultural warfare.

"It's not at all a war cry," he insisted. "It's normal that America is in the first rank to develop that wonderful gift to humanity. I'm not criticizing it, I just tell Europeans that America will play its game, and we must play ours."