French doubt ′second life′ of Google books | Science| In-depth reporting on science and technology | DW | 22.06.2012
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French doubt 'second life' of Google books

Despite a landmark deal between Google and French publishers to digitalize out-of-print books on the Web, some still fear the death of the paperback. Others hope old books will get a new lease of life.

In the 12th arrondissement of Paris, the bookshop Atout Livre is buzzing with activity. Clients are browsing through the latest releases as staff scuffle about, tidying up the bookshelves.

Here, the deal struck between Google and French publishers has raised concern.

Owner Jerome Dayre doesn't quite know what to make of the drive to digitalize of unavailable books

"I'm totally in the dark, I don't know what is going to happen," says Dayre, "I've already got 600,000 works, so I simply don't know what to think of all these extra books."

Earlier in June, the French Publishers Association (SNE) and the US-based Google Inc. announced they had signed an agreement on the digitalizing of unavailable works.

Paris bookshop Atout Livre

Inside Paris bookshop Atout Livre 'real' books are not under threat - yet

The deal was six years in the making.

It comes after a long legal battle in which French publishers had accused Google of violated local copyright law with its mass scanning of French books.

Google and the SNE have not revealed the exact terms of their deal. This has left booksellers worried about the future.

But the SNE's Christine de Mazières says the deal is "a very important step forward."

"Google has proposed this framework agreement to all our members. We can confirm it respects French law," says de Mazières.

Out of print, out of mind

The SNE says over one million books are out-of-print in France. Publishers retain the rights to these works for 70 years after the death of the author.

"This is an opportunity to give works a second life. But of course, it's not a big business, or else they would not be out of print, they would be on the bookshelves," says de Mazières.

A person helps a giant desktop machine scan a rare, centuries-old Bible

Digitalizing books is a huge undertaking, but some say it could be good for research work

Even with the deal, Google will still have to seek permission from publishers before they can digitalize any books. If the publisher agrees, they can then begin to negotiate the terms of the collaboration.

Options include selling the works as eBooks, publishing them online, or merely indexing them.

But some questions remain unanswered - such as how Google and the French publishers plan to share any revenue from eBooks. Google did not respond to DW's requests for an interview. And the SNE's Christine de Mazières declined to discuss any commercial aspects of the deal.

The agreement is non-binding, which means French publishers don't have to work with Google. If they find a better deal with another Internet publisher, they can work with them.

But William Gilles, an associate professor and digital law specialist, says publishers might feel forced to boost the referencing of their works on the Internet.

"I think they will have no choice," says Gilles. "eBooks are very important now. If you want to find a book, you have to look for it on the Web. And the most popular search engine today is certainly Google."

Gilles thinks that Google may be inclined to rate works on its eBook platform higher than those belonging to competitors. Google is popular in France and dominates over 80 percent of the local search engine market.

Death of the paperback

Gilles' fears are shared by independent bookshop owners, who say the deal is a threat to the print industry.

Paris bookseller Jerome Dayre

Paris bookseller Jerome Dayre

France has laws to protect its vibrant network of independent bookshops. In 2010, over 23 percent of books were sold in small shops, against 13 percent over the Internet.

But Paris bookseller Jerome Dayre says there is still a risk.

"Publishers who have released electronic versions of unavailable works might refuse to reprint works [in a physical form]," says Dayre, "They'll tell authors, Don't worry, your book is available on the Internet. But my question is simple: who is going to buy these books?"

The SNE denies it wants to undercut French independent bookshops.

"France's strong network of bookshops is really very important to all French people and we want to maintain it," says De Mazières.

But Jerome Dayre says he finds the SNE's line unconvincing. Bookshop owners, says Dayre, were not involved in the talks with Google.

He wants to see more protection for the print industry and independent bookshops. They are warmer, says Dayre, and they can offer better recommendations than any search engine.

Author: Clea Caulcutt, Paris
Editor: Zulfikar Abbany

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