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Summary:

Google and Belgian news publishers announced a deal that will put an end to their copyright dispute. Google says it is not paying the papers for content — so then why is money changing hands?

Europeans have been trying for years to force Google to prop up the continent’s’ struggling news publishers. A new deal in Belgium suggests they have finally succeeded.

In a blog post on Wednesday, Google said it has resolved a long-running dispute with Belgian newspapers that have demanded copyright fees every time Google displays a link or excerpts to one of their stories. Google’s announcement says the parties are “collaborating” to make money but also takes pains to note that “we are not paying the Belgian publishers or authors to include their content in our services”. Oh, really?

US press outlets have noted Google is paying all the legal fees but have generally framed the deal as a tie or a win for Google. The Europeans, however, have been less gracious. Le Monde‘s triumphant account begins by explaining that the Belgian papers “forced Google to bend” and that Google will “compensate” papers and journalists to the tune of “2 to 3 percent of sales” — or “around 5 million euros” ($6.5 million).

So what exactly happened? Did Google pay up or not? The solution to the mystery lies in a part of the blog post where Google explains the ways it will work with the papers, including: “Google will advertise its services on the publishers’ media.” In other words, the American search giant appears to have bought millions of dollars of advertising in the hopes of staving off a direct copyright levy. The company did not immediately reply to a request for comment.

On its face, this is not a bad deal for Google. Given the anti-American regulatory climate in Europe, the company had a weak hand to play. Paying $6 millon to end the Belgian headache may be a good investment, especially as the company can still claim (technically at least) that it still does not pay copyright fees for newspaper excerpts.

The danger, of course, is that the rest of Europe will soon be beating a path to Google’s door demanding similar payouts. As we’ve noted, France and Germany are already kicking up dust over the copyright issue too (so is Brazil). The Le Monde story will only embolden them.

In the bigger picture, European news publishers would be better served by dropping the half-baked copyright claims (Google’s fair use case for excerpts is strong) and getting on with the painful process of digitization. The continent has wonderful newspapers but the ongoing prevalence of print is astounding compared to North America.

(Image by Sergey Mironov via Shutterstock)

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  1. Christoph Keese Thursday, December 13, 2012

    Jeff, your critical remark on Europe’s news digitization seems a bit strange. May I direct your attention to Schibsted, Axel Springer, Burda? And please note the enormous reaches German news websites have built up – in many cases online has by far surpassed print. Publishers having missed out on digital sounds more like Google propaganda than reality. Very best, Christoph Keese (Axel Springer AG, Berlin).

    1. Thanks for your comment, Christoph. I confess my opinions are based on my experiences in France, Spain, Norway and the UK — I am not in a position to judge Germany. That said, I am very skeptical of German lawmakers’ efforts to impose what amounts to a tax on Google in order to subsidize incumbent news distributors. I understand the political appeal but such behavior is not healthy from either an economic or free expression perspective.

    2. Yes they have built up an enourmous reach, but most of them failed to monetize – that’s why they cry for lawmakers to assist.

  2. It’s not necessarily “half-baked”…
    Charging a levy for re-use of online news excerpts by commercial news aggregators has been a reality in the UK for over a year now — backed by court.

  3. and you should the UK papers efforts as well – the Guardian, Independent and even the Daily Mail have very popular website. In Belgium, Le Soir and others are also producing good online editions

  4. Why is their case for “fair use” strong? They don’t add anything to the conversation at all. They don’t do any work. Fair use is so writers can create something new while including simple references to the old. It’s not meant for someone to take the best and most important part of a work while adding nothing, nada to the world. It’s a way to free load.

  5. Can you imagine a world where Facebook, Google and the like had to pay for what it uses? It would completely change its business model. I think it is inevitable though. You can only base your vision on other peoples stuff for so long before they get miffed and want something for their hard work. The flip side is to continue the if its free its for me til no one produces anything worth seeing, or reading. Like the Patch/AOL in the US

  6. Brian Matthias Friday, December 14, 2012

    they should pay me for displaying the advertisement on my screen

  7. Durant Imboden Friday, December 14, 2012

    There’s a big difference between a search engine like Google News and an aggregator like The Huffington Post. A news-search engine feeds traffic to publishers by displaying links (with just enough information to whet the searcher’s interest), while a news aggregator like HuffPo generally rewrites other publishers’ stories, providing enough information to save readers the bother of clicking on links to third-party sites.

    News publishers love to attack Google for doing what search engines do, but they know perfectly well that they can deny access to Google News with one line of text in a robots.txt file. Why don’t they take advantage of the Robots Exclusion Standard, which is older than Google or any of today’s news sites? Simple: They want free traffic from Google. At the same time, they want Google to pay for the privilege of sending them traffic. That makes no sense at all, and if news publishers can’t figure out how to earn revenue from their sites without biting the hand that feeds them, the future of their businesses would appear to be in jeopardy.

    1. Google is not sending them traffic because it is oh-so altruistic. It is part of building a one-stop shop for all searches and monetize from the strength of that brand. Thus, despite your denigration, it is really a privilege of sorts to send that traffic. Yes, newspapers can cut off Google completely, but you can make the exact same argument against Google. If it does not want to share any revenue from its advertising business, it can shut off its News aggregation page.

      Google cannot argue that it is OK for it to use copyrighted content in non-fair use ways, because it is beneficial overall for the newspaper websites. It has to prove that whatever it is doing is really fair use, regardless of whether it makes money for the newspapers in some ways. Well, either that or negotiate with newspapers to reach a mutually acceptable agreement. It seems Google picked the latter option. Google’s scheme looks like fair use to me, but I don’t think Google would settle the case if it was an open and shut case.

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