A French court on Friday told Google that it cannot digitise French books without publishers' approval and ordered the online giant to pay 300,000 euros (430,000 dollars) in damages.
The ruling capped a three-year-old case brought by one of France's biggest publishing houses, Les Editions du Seuil, which claimed that thousands of its works had been digitised by Google without consent.
The Paris tribunal ruled that by scanning entire books or excerpts and putting them on line, "Google has committed acts of copyright violation to the detriment of Le Seuil" and two other publishers.
It ordered Google to pay 300,000 euros in damages to the three publishers owned by La Martiniere group and a symbolic sum of one euro to the SNE Publishers' Association and the SGDL Society of Authors.
La Martiniere was seeking 15 million euros in damages and interests.
Google said it would appeal the decision, but agreed to halt scanning books published by La Martiniere and other works under French copyright law.
"This ruling does not help advance copyright protection," said Google lawyer Alexandra Neri. "Quite the contrary, it is a setback for the rights of Internet users who want access to the French and world literary heritage.
"France is now at the back of the Internet queue," said Neri.
La Martiniere backed by the 530-member SNE and the the authors' guild was contesting Google's decision in 2005 to digitise millions of books from US and European libraries and make them available on line.
The court gave Google one month to apply the ruling and halt digitisation of French books or face a 10,000 euros per day fine.
The plaintiffs' lawyer, Yann Colin, told the court that Google's decision to scan the books for use online was "illegal, dangerous and caused prejudice to the publishers" who were powerless to oppose the agreement with libraries.
Google had sought to challenge the court's jurisdiction in the case but the judges ruled in the end that the matter was within their purview.
The court decision came as a US judge is due to rule in February on the legality of a revised agreement between Google and a group of US publishers and authors that will allow millions of books to be digitised.
Digitisation has become bound up with the sensitive issue of protecting French cultural and intellectual property in recent months.
President Nicolas Sarkozy announced on Monday that his government will spend 750 million euros to digitally scan its national treasures and vowed to protect French heritage at a time of suspicions over the American-owned Google's digitisation drive.
Culture Minister Frederic Mitterrand met earlier this month with Google's vice-president David Drummond and expressed his "concern" about the company's worldwide book-scanning activities.
"Every day we have news from Google saying 'we have made a deal with such-and-such a record company, or with so-and-so.' But we have to be very careful," he said..
"The content must not fall into private hands."
The publishers argued in court that 10,000 books had been reproduced by Google, but the judges restricted their ruling to the case of 300 works.
Google cannot "seriously argue -- unless it is casting doubt on the reason for the Google Books search engine -- that creating a digital file from a book is not an act of reproduction," said the court ruling.
"Digitising constitutes a reproduction of a work that must, if it falls under copyright protection, be done with the approval of the author or the copyright holders," it added.
Google lawyer Neri argued that Google Books was not a library but a search engine and that only brief excerpts from books were made available on the Internet that do not require payment of royalties.
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