Parlez-vous Copyright?

Google’s scheme to dominate the world of digital book vending was dealt a legal blow yesterday by a French court who ruled that copyrights of French authors are violated each time Google excerpts their works and makes them available to the public via Google’s book-digitization project. According to the New York Times, a fine of $430,000 was assessed, plus an additional daily fee of $14,300 for every 24 hours that the excerpts of French authors remain online.

This story has a parallel to the American healthcare debate: Google tried to push it’s digitization project through quickly and under the radar only to be outed. Since many saw Google’s deal as a rush against copyright protections in order to corner the emerging online book market, the internet juggernaut now faces a protracted legal battle on almost every front.


According to the Times, nearly half of Google’s digitized books are in languages other than English. But no matter the language, Google did not necessarily approach publishers, and certainly not writers' unions, to strike a deal. Instead, it approached major libraries, public and university, and offered to digitize their stacks.

While Google currently displays only the complete text of works in the public domain—anonymously written books or ones with expired copyrights—it freely excerpts large portions of works still under copyright protections. These excerpts are the subject of the French court’s ruling.

The next time you are at an artsy kind of party and someone refers to an artist or movie director as an auteur, you’ll have witnessed the back story the court’s decision. The control that the artist has over his or her work is prized higher in France than the public’s right to access that work, and the rights of the auteur set the benchmark for the rest of the art industry.

In an apparent challenge to the Google book-digitization project, President Sarkozy has pledged over a billion dollars to get the French digitization machine up to speed.

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