Thomas White Global Investing
France Stamp
February 5, 2010
A Postcard from Europe
France: Gallica to Race against Google

Online search

President Sarkozy has said that he has earmarked around $1 billion to scan French books.

In early January of this year, France President Nicholas Sarkozy stunned the Internet world when he proposed an initiative known as the “Google Tax.” His idea? To tax online advertizing revenues from firms like Google, Yahoo, AOL, Facebook, and Yahoo! among others. Sarkozy is hoping that this tax, amounting to around 1% or 2% of ad revenues, would rein in as much as $14.4 million annually, funds which he plans to use to subsidize France’s music, publishing and film industries, all of which have been struggling to combat rampant piracy. The idea evoked surprise, indignation, and scorn at what many in the blogging sphere see as France’s crusade against perceived Google imperialism.

Squabbles between Google, the undisputed giant among search engines, and France are not new. Recently, the Culture Minister Frédéric Mitterrand expressed his dismay over deals that Google had independently signed with French publishers for its Google Books product, a mammoth collection of digitized books. “Google entered Europe as a conqueror and many people opened the door for it by signing agreements that I find unacceptable,” he told Le Monde, in a stinging criticism of the Internet search leader. In what was the first major setback for Google in its digital books campaign, a French court had previously ordered the search engine giant to pay $430,000 in damages to a French publisher, La Martiniere for copyright infringements. “Google violated author copyright laws by fully reproducing and making accessible on the site books that Seuil owns without its permission,” the court said in its judgment. Google has said that it would appeal the ruling.

The French government intends to take on Google, announcing plans to launch its own book index based on its own digital library, Gallica, which is being billed as a public-private partnership. Mitterrand was wary about antagonizing Google too much though, aware of the search engine’s immense popularity and reach on the Internet, stating that he was prepared to share files with Google as long as the company adheres to French laws.

Gallica has currently scanned only around 145,000 books and there is simply no comparison to Google’s seemingly infinite 10 million book collection, which explains why Mitterrand is willing to welcome Google despite protracted issues with the Internet behemoth. Google, predictably, is not happy with Sarkozy’s “Google Tax,” idea – saying that such taxes would stifle innovation. Google, ironically, despite all its troubles in France, already has a major contract with the Municipal Library of Lyon to scan around half a million books from their collection. The contract with Lyon was one which raised eyebrows. Google scans the books for Lyon for free but retains the right for commercial exploitation of the books for as long as 25 years. It is this sort of a clause that raises suspicion in French minds, especially when Google is eyeing a partnership with the renowned National Library.

Ultimately, Mitterrand’s admission that he was willing to work with the Internet heavyweight indicates that it is in the best interest of both parties to pursue a mutually amicable path of understanding. Google has the resources to undertake a project of this size – and France has centuries of culture and literature that needs to be protected. And that could be a win-win scenario for both sides and a big gift to internet users worldwide.

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