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Google breached newspapers' copyright, court rules

A Brussels court said Google Inc. violated copyright laws by publishing links to Belgian newspapers without permission and ordered the company to remove them, setting a precedent for future cases in Europe.

Google Inc., the owner of the world's most-used search engine, must pay €25,000 ($32,500) a day until it removes all Belgian news content, the Brussels Court of First Instance ruled today. There's „no exception” for Google in copyright law, the court said in the judgment. Google spokeswoman Jessica Powell said the company would study the ruling before commenting. The case may restrict how Internet sites in Europe link to newspaper content.
Copiepresse, a group representing 17 French-and German-language newspapers including La Libre Belgique and Le Soir, had sued Google for copyright infringement, arguing the Mountain View, California-based company shouldn't be allowed to link to their newspaper content for free and without permission. „Google will have to reach a deal to make it worthwhile for newspapers to cooperate,” David Hooper, a newspaper lawyer and partner at Reynolds Porter Chamberlain in London, said by telephone today. „There is a tendency for Google to use things for free and reach a deal later.”
Bernard Magrez, a lawyer for Copiepresse, said the daily fine imposed against Google today is retroactive for 139 days to when the search engine was first asked to remove the content. Google shares traded at the equivalent of $457.57 at 11:08 a.m. in Frankfurt, down 72 cents, or 0.2%, from yesterday's close on the Nasdaq Stock Market.

Google last year postponed plans for a Danish news site after newspapers complained. In 2005 French news agency Agence France-Presse sued Google for linking to its content for free. Copiepresse has also threatened legal action against Microsoft Corp. and Yahoo! Inc. if they continue to use their stories. Google News was introduced in Belgium in January 2006, showing headlines, photos and the first few lines of news stories with links to the full articles on the newspapers' Web sites. The case is part of a global drive by newspaper publishers to force search engines to pay for using their stories and pictures. The newspapers sued in September and won a court order that forced Google to remove all links to their content, or face a €1 million daily fine.

Google said it complied while the editors maintain that some content is still on the system and that its fines have increased to millions of euros. Google also had to post the ruling on its Belgian Web site for five days or pay €500,000 a day. The company argues that using headlines and text fragments with links to newspaper Web sites on Google News is legal. The Belgian newspaper editors, including Francois Le Hodey, CEO of La Libre Belgique, say their content creates „colossal traffic” for search engines, which is profitable only for them. The Court of First Instance held a second hearing in the case November 24 to allow Google, which wasn't at the first session, to present its arguments.

„The whole process was restarted from scratch” with the new hearing, said Philippe Nothomb, head of legal affairs of Rossel et Cie., which owns Belgium's most-read French daily, Le Soir. This includes calculating the fines, he said in a telephone interview on January 29. A decision backing the court's first order would embolden other newspapers to start similar group litigation or use it as a negotiating tactic, Greg Sterling, an analyst at Sterling Market Intelligence, said before the ruling.
Google wouldn't have a product in the absence of this content. „Google is very fearful to open the floodgates to other parties asking for money and this decision may do that across the EU,” Sterling, whose market-analysis firm is based in Oakland, California, said by telephone February 1. Copiepresse plans to target all search engines that offer similar services, its secretary-general Margaret Boribon said in a telephone interview last month. Yahoo, which received a formal notice from the group in January, won't be the last, said Boribon. Belgium's Flemish newspaper society didn't join the lawsuit, asking Google instead to remove the content of all its nine dailies, such as De Standaard, from its news service.
„We tried to come to a solution in a more efficient way,” the society's head Alex Fordyn said on October 16. Still, the ruling may help his group's negotiations with Google, he said. In a surprise twist, on the day of the November court hearing, two of the five groups that had joined the Copiepresse lawsuit reached a settlement with Google. The company confirmed it had agreed a deal with copyright agencies Sofam, which represents 3,700 photographers, and Scam, which represents journalists, declining to elaborate on the terms. (Bloomberg)