The French government on Tuesday threatened to eject Google from a project to digitise the collection of the French national library unless the internet group radically changed the terms of its book-scanning project.
The ultimatum from Frédéric Mitterrand, culture minister, is the latest in a series of legal and political attacks on Google’s activities in France and follows last week’s call by President Nicolas Sarkozy for a tax on its French advertising revenues.
When the prestigious National Library of France (BNF) revealed last year that it was in negotiations with Google to digitise its collection, it triggered a furore among the French literary establishment, who accused the institution of abandoning France’s cultural heritage to a monopolistic US corporation.
Deals with leading libraries around the world are important to Google because in return for digitising their collections, the company gains access to millions of public-domain books and, more controversially, in-copyright but out-of-print titles for its book search service.
However, an independent review for the French culture ministry published on Tuesday criticised the deals struck by Google and libraries in Europe, saying they were stacked in Google’s favour. The review was also scathing about the publicly-funded alternatives to Google, including France’s Gallica, which dates from 1997 but has digitised only 145,000 books. Google has scanned 10m.
The review proposed either investing heavily in and overhauling Gallica, beefing up Europeana, the European book search portal, or establishing a public-private partnership with Google.
Mr Mitterrand joined the criticism of Google’s deals to digitise library collections in an interview with Le Monde newspaper, saying they involved “excessive confidentiality, impossible exclusivity and casual – even leonine – clauses on copyright”.
Mr Mitterrand offered a partnership between the French state and Google to digitise French libraries but only if the media group dropped its exclusivity clauses – which typically extend to 20-25 years. Google argues exclusivity is necessary to earn a return on its scanning investment.
“Google welcomes any public-private partnership to promote French heritage and make it accessible to as many people as possible,” said Philippe Colombet, head of Google Books France.