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Google lashes out at German copyright ‘threat’

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Google (s GOOG) has launched a broadside against a proposed law in Germany that would see search engines forced to pay license fees for linking people to news stories.

Well, actually that’s slightly inaccurate: the draft law would make search engines pay for reproducing newspapers’ headlines and first paragraphs. So, take those away and the links are fine. Even if nobody will have the faintest idea what they’re linking to.

Google’s North Europe communications chief, Kay Oberbeck, sounded off about the issue this morning in a guest post for a German press agency. That was in German, of course, so I got him to vent in English as well:

“Nobody sees a real reason why this should be implemented,” he said. “It’s really harmful, not just for users who wouldn’t find as much information as they find now, but such a law is also not justified for economic reasons or judicial reasons.”

Oberbeck also pointed out the obvious: that Google send readers to the publishers’ sites. And that anyone who doesn’t want their content to be indexed by Google can just throw a robots.txt file in there. And that publishers make money off Adsense.

But wait, let’s back up. To appreciate the full absurdity of the situation, we should take in a little history.

The German publishing houses, particularly Axel Springer, are very powerful in their country, with relatively strong influence in government circles. As Matthias Spielkamp of the copyright news site iRights put it to me:

“If you look at the U.S., if print houses there want something, they are up against American companies like Google and Yahoo (s YHOO). Here we have local publishers that are enormously powerful and are trying to target U.S. companies. I wouldn’t say it’s anti-American – it’s just that German politicians are much more inclined to protect German publishers’ interests when balancing that with a [foreign] company or industry.”

A couple of years ago, a leaked draft showed what plans the publishing houses were pitching to their friends in the coalition government. The first official draft legislation showed up in April. What it proposed was breathtaking.

The government was calling for a form of ‘ancillary copyright’ to be brought in, that would force companies to pay publishers license fees for using their work in a commercial setting. As in, employers would have to pay up for letting their employees read the news online at work.

German industry bodies were predictably apoplectic, as were opposition parties, and the government beat a hasty retreat. The second draft, which appeared in the last couple of months, drastically narrowed the scope of the legislation, so that it would only apply to search engines.

So now Google is furious for being picked on, when it actually drives traffic to the publishers.

And the publishers aren’t happy either – Anja Pasquay, a spokeswoman for the Federal Association of German Newspaper Publishers (BDZV), told me that the second draft “won’t help”, and her organization would rather see a revival of the first draft.

So, with nobody happy, and with the government looking increasingly isolated, a third draft is rumoured to be in the works. That’s why Google is piping up now.

“An ancillary copyright would mean a massive damage to the German economy. It’s a threat to the freedom of information. And it would leave Germany behind internationally as a place for business,” Oberbeck told me.

“Publishers should be innovate in order to be successful. A compulsory levy for commercial internet users means cross-subsidizing publishers through other industries. This is not a sustainable solution.”

On balance, it’s difficult not to take Google’s side on this one. The whole idea of this kind of ancillary copyright is ridiculous, and it puts the likes of Axel Springer in a very poor light indeed.

It’s not as though Axel Springer isn’t plunging headfirst into the web industry itself – only today, it announced the purchase of an online news and classified portal.

The German publishing giants are big enough to compete in the real world. Sure, it’s tough monetizing free web content. But cooking up hokey and self-defeating new copyright laws is a pretty shabby way to go about it.

25 Responses to “Google lashes out at German copyright ‘threat’”

  1. Reblogged this on Briskin, Cross & Sanford, LLC and commented:
    A classic case of the tension between rights holders and technology companies. On one hand the technology companies (in many cases) enable greater uptake of the content. On the other, rights holders often see technology companies monetizing their content without and direct benefit to the rights holder. (Pinterest and Google are two of the big battlegrounds in this fight.) There is merit on both sides of this fight, and it is clear that not only do copyright laws need to evolve to logically deal with this tension, but so do the business models on both sides. There is not a clear new paradigm that works for both sides yet, but if one doesn’t arrive soon, there will be an awful lot of unnecessary casualties on both sides of this battle.

  2. yang heffer

    It is important to step back and think about the global market evolution. Motors are key to the Internet, we all use them and need them, no doubt about this, the question is how all actors can live and develop in this new environment, together, and for the public’s benefit? The whole ecosystem needs content producers, and quality contents. There has been an obvious shift of value between content producers and motors, if we want a solid, rich of content, and open Internet, we need to think about value sharing, as in any emerging model. This is more to ensure durability of the ecosystem than anything else, sort of an ecologic approach of the Internet. Motors get benefit from linking permanently refreshed quality contents: news, but cost of producing news is high and badly remunerated, why the cost of operating for a motor wouldn’t be what is proposed here by German government? Any industry has a cost of operating its business! To be fair, on the other hand, we should ask to remove publishers’ ability to refuse to be listed by motors, for the public’s benefit! This is a modern approach, this is a way to ensure ALL information is available, and this is a way to ensure a fair value share on the Internet in the value chain. Too easy and short to say motors should delist them and – so what for the user? No more news with its pluralism, the only access to news would be through strong media brands, no chance for interesting news from smaller publishers to be read and emphasized? There is a need to pay for the cost of information, to send a journalist in Syria to investigate…But it creates value, as sold content, through advertising, and through the massive contacts it generates, for the benefit of publishers, and motors as well. Music producers get paid for the right of broadcasting music on radio, and, on the other end, they cannot refuse for their music to be broadcasted, why? Because radios sell advertising on the back of those broadcasts. Motors could pay such a neighboring right, without affecting its business model, or so marginally, why? Because they sell advertising on the back of the millions links they make with news, permanently refreshed and paid by publishers. There is no bad publisher or bad motor here, there is a whole ecosystem to rethink, at the publics benefit, the first responsibility of the government is to ensure the public can access to all news, and to ensure pluralism and professionalism. Short term approach would impoverish the Internet at the public’s disadvantage. We must thing big, think durability and fairness in business practices, in order to keep and develop a rich, full of content and open Internet. Not surprised Germans have got this durable approach of the Internet, they can be proud of their approach, it can open a step 2 in the Internet business model, for the benefit of the audience, as content will improve and increase in quality, durably. At the end, public, through better quality content should benefit from both motors and publishers businesses, as public makes it all!

  3. The problem is that here in Germany many people still haven’t understood how the internet works and how they can use it for their own benefit. This discussion remembers me of the record industry where similar things are going on. By adhering to old business models the protagonists jeopardize Germany’s reputation as technology market and their own companies. And many of the politicians who aren’t a-jour with current techniques support them doing so. Very sad – I hope the sensible people will prevail.

  4. Paul Pehrson

    Easy solution: Google just turns off all Google-related services in Germany, including Gmail, YouTube, Google Search, etc. Let’s see how long the German public puts up with that before the law is changed back.

  5. Reblogged this on PostPrint and commented:
    Currently a media law storm is brewing in Germany that highlights the power of Internet news distribution and the slippery issue of copyright law infringement as well as implementation on the web. It also highlights that perhaps news providers are growing hungry for money … but we already knew that.

  6. Superficially this is a licensing issue. Copying a news article’s introductory text word-for-word, replicating its image and headline are to put it basically – plagiarism. That’s a fair call.

    But underneath, the surreptitious motive here has got to be money. Search engines like Google have pots of it, news publishers increasingly don’t …

    Why don’t these German online news providers erect pay walls and profit from the audience traffic steered to them by search engines and bloggers linking to them?

    If Google generates a vast amount of clicks towards news websites through its aggregator, maybe the receiving news publishers should be paying Google for marketing their material?

    • No, they’re *not* plagiarism, because plagiarism is taking something someone else has written and claiming it as your own. Whereas if you actually go to Google News what you’ll see is the name of the publisher written underneath the title of the article.

  7. MegaByte

    A hyperlink that takes a thumbnail photo, and a headline, and an article opening line or two… Sounds like plaigerism to me, or theft. There is a licensing issue here.

    Just because someone can write code that complies and aggregates components of individual articles doesn’t mean it’s right or legal. If they posted the code that creates these micro-articles, people would get the idea how they are surgically stealing copyrighted content.

    Google News is an aggregator, Napsterizing the news biz.. And of course there are many other aggregators, not just Google.

    It’s not that software might be rigged, it is rigged. People are slowly waking up. This is great that some government is addressing this topic.

    • Graeme Caldwell

      I don’t think you understand the difference between plagiarism, theft, and copyright infringement.

      Do you think traffic to news websites has increased or decreased since Google came along? Discoverability is a significant problem for online content, and search engines are the solution to that problem. Google News is an aggregator, but it helps people to discover content on websites other than those they are already familiar with, thus driving traffic to them. Preventing Google from doing so is an anti-competitive move from the big publishers who already have some mindshare in a particular domain.

      Also, you have to make a distinction between a service like Google News, which displays headlines and snippets while directing people to the full content on other sites, and services like that scrapes those sites and displays content within their own page. You might have a point with the latter sort of service, but not the former.

      Killing services like Google News and limiting the effectiveness of search would mean that content is put in silos sealed off from the rest of the net. It would kill the interconnected nature of the internet, stifle innovation and competition, and be good for only those who are already dominant in the industry.

      I’m a freelance writer, and I rely on being paid for the content I create for my living, an have little patience for people that infringe my copyright, but I’m savvy enough to realize that Google are actually a huge boon to most content creators.

  8. Bob, they can opt out of search but Google can drop them, too. So their leverage for this silly law is that Google might lose more than the publishers if the latter opted out or were dropped. That’s my reasoning here.

  9. Blatant anti-competitive corruption. The big publishers know that readers will find them anyway. So if their articles are no longer listed in searches, readers might skip Google and visit their favorite newspaper’s website directly. That’s obviously advantageous for a publisher cartel that wants readers to spend as much time on their own websites as possible and minimize their exposure to competition.

    • cnahr – read the story – publishers can already use a robots.txt file if they don’t want to appear on google. It’s about exerting control and trying to sting Google for a few bucks.

    • ThiefSpanker

      You are warped my friend. They just want some small compensation for Google making a business out of scraping and repackaging their original content. It’s simple, and a great idea.

      The sea of internet freeloaders see it as a creed… And this starts with Google. Google doesen’t make content, they make code that scrapes and repackages other people’s content. You are part of the sea of people who will hardly pay for anything. The anarchy of addiction to totally free content is what is wrong with the Internet culture It’s time to cure this ailment.

      • That would be a great argument if Google was actually copying entire articles without permission, but they are not. On the contrary, Google directs people to the publishers’ own websites if they want to read the full article. So you’re just talking nonsense.

    • ThiefSpanker

      Taking part or parts of someone’s copyrighted content is theft. You simply ipidimize the culture that thrives on stolen content but can’t see themselves as thieves. Some day when you grow up you might understand.

      • Baribal

        The publishers want everybody who uses any excerpt from their articles to pay for it. Trough the legislative process, this has been watered down to “search engines”, which in Germany is synonymous with Google. The initial draft was also aimed at everybody who “republished in a commercial context”, which means everybody who so much as runs an ad on his private blog. Also, as giving out licences is not mandatory or something that everybody could afford, and no reference to fair use was made, this law may have undercut the quotation laws. In american terminology that’d mean: You can exert free speech as long as the publisher allows it and you can afford it.
        In its current version it means that publishers who publish stuff on the internet and have their sites indexed by Google want Google to pay for the privilege of making those sites accessible to the searching public, and when asked why they don’t just write noindex/nosnippet lines into their robots.txt, they are not above giving answers like “The robots.txt method is flawed as it does not allow for specifying detailed licenses.” (I’m paraphrasing Christoph Keese, Axel Springers chief lobbyist, here:, which basically means that those who lobby for the Leistungsschutzrecht already know how to stop Google from using snippets, they’d just rather not do it and have Google pay for providing their service to the publishers.
        And you claim that someone who calls BS on that epitomizes a culture of theft?

      • “ipidimize”, eh? Childish troll with childish handle builds childish strawmen and posts childish insults. Apparently there’s no moderation on GigaOm comments and the article author doesn’t bother to show up either, so participating here is sadly a waste of time. Goodbye.

  10. Klaus Junginger

    Ban them from the index, and they shall come (Belgium case).

    You should see what`s happening in Brazil since November 2010- a nosnippet/noindex policy issued by the newspaper`s association. In return, Google created a Twitter account in which a absolutely stupdi software tweets incomplete headlines of those papers which agreed to the Googlenews bot blocking policy.

    It can`t get any worse, can it?

    Thanks for sharing, David


  11. Agreed, Google has been making too many free sandwiches for too long!

    I would be curious to see this law go into affect, have Google create a work around against the headlines and then have the Publishers scramble to repeal this law.

    Silly Politics, if only there were bigger issues at hand….