The (Very) French Argument against Google Books

Christine S. Haynes is Assistant Professor of History at the University of North Carolina, Charlotte. Her latest book is Lost Illusions: The Politics of Publishing in Nineteenth-Century France (Harvard, 2009).

American opponents of Google Books, Google’s effort to create a vast digital book repository, cite various reasons for their resistance:  the issue of copyright, or the danger of monopolization.  The debate has been expertly covered by Robert Darnton in The Case for Books: Past, Present, and Future.  But in France, where President Nicolas Sarkozy recently pledged almost $1.1 billion to digitize French publications and documents independently of Google, the driving concern is instead the threat that Google poses by treating information like any other commodity.  In their memorandum to the American court charged with adjudicating the lawsuit against Google brought by authors and publishers, the French government invoked such national literary heroes as Molière, Racine, Camus, and Sartre to argue that because of its role in promoting diversity and civilization, the book is “a product unlike other products.”  For the French, the nation’s literary and historical patrimony is a public good.  As Sarkozy has said, “We won’t let ourselves be stripped of our heritage to the benefit of a big company, no matter how friendly, big or American it is.”

Though it may seem like just another case of Gallic obstructionism or isolationism (not to say anti-Americanism), the French opposition to Google marks another chapter in the history of the publishing industry in France, where the notion of a “market” for information has long been controversial.  Americans tend to view the “information marketplace” as the natural outcome of economic modernization, but it’s actually a political construction that has changed across time and place. In other countries, members of the industry and the government have long contested the notion that the production of literature should be left to the market instead of being regulated by the state. Nowhere has this been truer than in France.

Before the Revolution of 1789, the French monarchy viewed print, like other forms of culture, as central to national identity and public security, and tightly regulated the book trade through a system of guilds and privileges.  This regulatory system was overthrown during the Revolution but then revived in a new form by Napoleon in 1810, when the government began to license printers and book-dealers and to guarantee literary property for a limited term.  Nonetheless, the Revolution had a lasting effect on the book trade through the introduction of a new kind of businessman: the éditeur, or “publisher” (as distinguished from a printer or bookseller), who remained committed to revolutionary liberalism.  Asserting that literature was a commercial product like any other, such éditeurs  lobbied the state to liberalize publishing legislation.  The éditeurs were opposed by traditional printers and booksellers, who (in terms very similar to those used by today’s French opponents of Google) maintained that literature was a unique kind of product that required continued—and even increased—protection.  The two camps in the book trade battled each other for most of the nineteenth century.

In the end, the liberal camp won.  With the help of a trade organization called the Cercle de la Librairie (Publishing Circle), entrepreneurial publishers persuaded the government to liberalize the market for print.  Beginning in the late 1860s, the governments of the Second Empire and of the Third Republic abolished licensing requirements and extended property rights in the book trade, in line with the interests of publishers.

However, the long struggle between traditionalists and liberals left a mark on the information market in France.  Long after liberalization, both the government and the trade itself remained more protectionist about literary culture than did their counterparts in England and the US.  In pursuit of special protections, even liberals appropriated the argument that the book was a “product unlike any other.”  Beginning in the late nineteenth century, publishers employed this argument in defense of price-fixing in the book trade, which was upheld by the government in France (in contrast to England and the US, where it was outlawed by the courts).  A similar argument has been invoked whenever national culture has been threatened by “the market.”  When the American-style entrepreneur Jean-Marie Messier, then chief of Vivendi Universal, fired the head of the film production company Canal Plus in 2002, he was denounced by President Jacques Chirac, who proclaimed, “To consider works of art and cultural goods ordinary merchandise is a profound mental aberration that nothing can justify.”

The history of cultural protectionism in France helps explain the French opposition to Google.  At the same time, it challenges Americans to re-think our own approach to the information “marketplace.”  The centuries-long debate over the regulation of publishing in France reminds us that such a “marketplace” is not a natural and static feature of the modern world, but a political choice.  Against Google, the French may be fighting a losing battle.  However, for their conviction that information is not a product like any other, they deserve our consideration.

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