Address by Frédéric Mitterrand at the closing of the conference «La révolution numérique de l'auteur» organized by the Société des Gens de Lettres
Mr President of the Société des Gens de Lettres, dear Alain ABSIRE,
Ladies and gentlemen,
You are no doubt familiar with Voltaire’s disillusioned projection: The great misfortune of a man of letters, he said, is usually to hold on to nothing. A bourgeois buys a small office, and he is supported by his confreres. If an injustice is done to him, he immediately finds defenders. The man of letters is helpless». And Voltaire adds, with his pictorial and caustic style, «the man of letters resembles flying fish: if he rises a little, the birds devour him; if he dives, the fish eat him».
It is first of all in the name of this observation, that of the social fragility of the man of letters, that the writers of the Enlightenment, beginning with BEAUMARCHAIS, have promoted the idea that animates you since 1838: the people of letters must unite to form society. They had already constituted, for centuries, a «Republic of Letters» which allowed them to resist the political and economic storms and to hold the shock of the revolutions of technology.
That is to say if your idea is relevant, not only to associate authors as you have been doing since the beginning, with BALZAC then as the first of your Presidents, but also to bring them together today to reflect together on their future in the face of the great upheaval caused by the “digital revolution”. This idea, moreover, is directly in line with the Enlightenment, which is also, as you know, at the origin of the fundamental notion of copyright.
First and foremost, I would like to thank Alain ABSIRE, on behalf of the authors, but also on behalf of the audiences for whom my Ministry is responsible, for his care and concern, and to congratulate him warmly for organizing these days of collective reflection on the “author’s digital revolution”.
The term “revolution” is often used a little indiscriminately. As if the fall of revolutionary utopias had led to an inflation of real false “revolutions” everywhere, in all fields… “A real revolution in your behavior, in your apartment, a real revolution in your kitchen…”: I could go on and on… But in this particular case, the word is not too strong and I take full measure of the current technological upheaval, which is the image of the technical revolutions that transformed the situation of the written word at the time of the invention of the printing press or, perhaps even of his very discovery of which Plato also tells us the faults in the Phedre (with the myth of Theuth). The title of your colloquium seems to me to be particularly relevant in this regard: «the digital revolution of the author» is interfering with profound changes such as «the Copernican revolution of the subject».
That is why I made it clear from the moment I arrived at the Ministry of Culture and Communication that the “digital revolution” would be one of the priority areas for my reflection and action.
A priority for my reflection first, because, in the face of a change of this order and of this magnitude, in the face of the exciting and sometimes equally disturbing inventiveness of the technique, of which no one can claim to have the key, we must «first understand», as Anatole FRANCE said. And I add, “learning a lot.” Observing a lot and anticipating a lot. This is what we do at the Ministry of Culture and Communication, what I try to do with my collaborators, and it is also and above all the work done in our walls by the excellent Department of Studies, Foresight and Statistics (DEPS). You know that its researchers have just published, with the signature of sociologist Olivier DONNAT, their Investigation – ten-year, always highly anticipated and revealing – , on the cultural practices of the French. Like you, our department’s foresight is concerned about “cultural practices in the digital age”.
This survey devotes your diagnosis and analysis to the idea of common sense in the triumph of a screen culture. But beware, in spite of all the metamorphoses that this revolution is preparing for us – I am thinking, for example, of the growing influence of the animated image that can be inserted, as in the past, the still image, in our readers' journeys. screen culture does not necessarily mean abandoning or relegating the culture of writing. Despite, no doubt, a certain increase in the power of animated images on the Internet, the Web has remained a space of writing.
These reflections are essential, and we will continue to do so by forging closer ties with research, because you know that the portfolio of the Minister of Culture and Communication contains what is called “cultural research” and the “scientific culture”. I am thinking in particular of our agreements with the CNRS, with which we are setting up a kind of “research supercentre”, a “Scientific Interest Group” specifically dedicated to the links between culture and digital.
All these reflections are not procrastination or procrastination, but the necessary deliberation that precedes reasoned and informed action.
Whatever happens, this action will respond to firm principles. The first principle is the central character of the author in the new chain of writing.
Until now, the reflections and concerns raised by the Internet have seemed to focus mainly on the announced erasure of intermediaries and on the question of what is called a somewhat barbaric term “disintermediation”. And it is true that the Ministry is making significant efforts both for bookstores and for publishers or, more generally, the press.
But it would be quite harmful and dangerous not to associate the authors with these necessary reflections, as it would be naive to believe that this phenomenon of «disintermediation» would mark in a univocal and massive way a sort of triumph of the Author, and that the Internet would sign an ironic response of history to the «death of the author» sung in the 1960s... Everyone sees that the bubbling of self-expression and the proliferation of signatures on the Internet to which we are given to attend do not always correspond to what is and must be a true «author», that is, in Latin, a «guarantor» and a «source» knowledge and talent that alone can make, in the noble sense of the word, "authority."
The new and sometimes unsustainable lightness of the texts whose boundaries are increasingly floating and blurred recalls this new landmark of BORGES, «the Book of Sand», this work without boundaries, whose «number of pages is exactly infinite. None is the first, none is the last.” This abolition of the limits of the text brilliantly anticipated by the Argentinian writer, to which is added the return, in the mode of interactive creations, to collective works, seems almost to have become reality in the digital era. In this new context, both complex and exhilarating, it is obvious that the author must be helped and encouraged to find new points of reference. Part of the book chain, the role of publishing houses and their reading committees, our whole system built guarantees that made «an author», a series of softenings that are now required to adapt. Does not the author himself, with the new technical possibilities open to him, notably self-publishing and self-dissemination, run the risk of fading considerably, even though he might have thought that he was finally becoming fully master at home? These changes in practice are not insignificant because they can, in the long run, have important consequences for the positive status of the profession. We are particularly attentive to this in the Department with the support and assistance of the Direction du Livre et de la Lecture.
The meaning of all these considerations is to tell you how necessary it seems to me that authors should take their full part in the reflections on the reconfiguration of the book landscape in the digital age.
The second principle, which naturally flows from this enlightenment of the authors, is the reaffirmation of French-style copyright which, in my opinion, with the single price of the book (1981 law), is one of the two pillars of a regulated and civilized creation and publishing.
Copyright in the digital age, I first defended it with a rather controversial law, but which I believe to be effective and fair, the so-called HADOPI law, recently adopted by Parliament. This law, which has been caricatured to the point of absurdity, is above all not a text of repression, but a law of regulation as well as pedagogy. I even wanted to add a section on the legal offer: here again, given the complexity of the issue, I did not want to act without having first thought and consultation and I entrusted to Messrs. ZELNIK, TOUBON and CERRUTTI a mission «Creation and Internet» The first proposals for concrete measures must be submitted to me by mid-November. This work will concern the book as well as the music and, at the heart of the book, the authors and their rights.
I am attached to French-style copyright, because it is its strength, it is pegged in a way that I would say almost visceral, to the personality of the author, unlike Anglo-Saxon copyright, which first and foremost protects the economic investment of the producer.
A key moment in our copyright preservation has obviously emerged in what has been called the “Google case”. I spoke very quickly on this matter in order to clarify the terms of the debate and I said strongly that this is typically an area where public authorities must play their full role, because it is a mission of the State to which no official can replace. I say this without bragging and without parody of grandeur and if this posture may seem Gaullian, it is a European Gaullism which we should perhaps speak of, since, as you know, many of our partners, Germany in particular, We have followed suit in the self-defence of copyright against Google.
The principle of the fair use ", as we speak of fair play ", that is, fair use (I am the Minister of the French Language!) which the Californian giant argues to justify the digitization of millions of authors without permission from the authors, is, in my opinion, a worthless legal decoy.
While I have no doubt that Google can help raise the profile of authors, particularly in the humanities and social sciences, many examples also show that these “bulk” digitizations are not without collateral damage. Such an heir discovers, like Richard WRIGHT’s daughter, that her father’s works were completely digitized, without even notifying her, while she devoted her life to the memory of her father writer… She expressed her distress in not only touching but meaningful terms at the European hearing on Google last September.
That is why the defence of copyright remains the basis of our action with the American judge and that is the meaning of our intervention with the European Commission.
The draft agreement proposed by Google does not respect intellectual property rights. It also does not comply with competition law and, in my view, constitutes a real threat to cultural diversity.
I also hope that these subjects will be included on the agenda of one of the next meetings of the Council of European Ministers of Culture.
But public authorities are not alone.
On the one hand, I will rely on a Commission on the digitisation of library heritage funds, which I entrusted to Marc TESSIER last week as chair. She will give me her conclusions in mid-December. Another appointment to mark in your calendars!
But above all, the action of the French Government will be all the more effective as the initiatives of economic actors in the book industry will accompany and complement it. I am thinking in particular of the creation of a genuine, unified and homogeneous digital book market, the design of which must be coordinated and shared with all stakeholders in the book world.
You know that the digital book is growing, both in the United States and in Japan and that the biggest companies are preparing its entry into force on the market. Many authors, Stephen KING or François BON and Didier VAN CAUVELAERT are already trying new literary forms adapted to these new technical supports. If we want the young generation, the screen generation, to remain a generation of the written word, we must rethink our contribution in terms of mediation, benchmarks, content.
This is why it is now necessary to go very quickly and to bring together all the economic, legal and political means, so that a legal offer of e-books can see the light of day in France. This offer should be rich, technically simple and economically accessible. Finally, it must, as far as I am concerned, guarantee fair and proportional remuneration for authors.
In this regard, I have expressed my interest in creating a single distribution platform. In order to do so, I think it would be most appropriate to start from what already exists and has been proven, in this case the ELECTRE base.
I would have liked to tell you about all that inspired me at the Frankfurt Fair, to evoke with you the thorny question of orphan works, followed in the Ministry by the Directorate of Books and Readings, But I have already gone on for a long time and I would like to end by saying a few words about the issues that concern you personally, and are not unrelated to the foregoing, those of your social and fiscal status.
This is also a crucial question. This is why, as a continuation of the creation of a specific supplementary pension scheme for writers and translators and its recent extension to illustrators, I asked the Director of Books and Reading to make me proposals aimed at improving the situation of authors.
The work begun on authors' incidental income must be completed as quickly and as seriously as possible, because it is for some that it is even possible to work as a writer.
In this context, I hope that a study will be conducted in the coming months on writer residencies, in order to develop partnerships between authors and communities or institutions, in a fair balance between creation and mediation.
I would also like to see the possibility for authors of written material to benefit from tax exemptions, as is the case today for artists, musicians and journalists.
The 2010 Book Fair will be exceptionally, to celebrate its thirty years, devoted not to a foreign country, but to French authors. So this will be your salon and it would seem quite normal to me that it should also be, as far as possible, the place of restitution of our work, not «on authors», but at least on, and for authors.
For I remain convinced that at the time of the digital revolution, the culture of the written word is still the first guarantee of our openness to the complexity of the world and that, to parody the Book, “in the beginning – that is, at the root of everything – was the author.”