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Google settles dispute with two Belgian media groups

Google Inc., the world's most-used Internet search engine, reached a settlement with Belgian photographers and journalists in a copyright dispute over how the company's news service links to newspaper content.

The agreement removes two of five groups from a Brussels lawsuit that seeks to prevent Google from linking to Belgian newspaper articles for free. Company spokeswoman Jessica Powell declined to give the terms of the agreements with copyright agencies Sofam, which represents 3,700 photographers, and Scam, which represents journalists. The settlements may show a willingness by Mountain View, California-based Google to resolve disputes with content providers trying to prevent the company from linking to Web sites without compensation. Book publishers and authors in the US are also challenging Google's plan to scan copyrighted books and make them searchable online. „It's going to be more expensive for Google to do its work if all these people want license fees for linking to their content,” said Laura Martin, a Soleil Securities Group Inc. analyst, in an interview on Friday. „The legal precedent has already been set.”

Martin, based in New York, said the settlement shows that Google faces costly hurdles in linking to European media. She rates Google shares „neutral” and doesn't own any. The Belgian suit, filed by a group of 17 French- and German-language newspapers, proceeded on Friday in Brussels at a hearing with the remaining plaintiffs. Powell declined to say whether Google is considering similar accords with the newspapers. „We reached an agreement with Sofam and Scam that will help us make extensive use of their content,” Powell said in a phone interview on Friday. This could have a „huge impact” on how Google is approaching content providers and could even „have an impact on their business model,” said Stijn Debaene, a lawyer at Allen & Overy in Brussels.

After the introduction of Google News earlier this year, Copiepresse, which represents the newspapers, sued to force the company to seek permission for using headlines and other text as links to articles. Google removed the links from its site after a Belgian court ruled in the newspapers' favor. Google argues that using headlines and text fragments with links to newspaper Web sites on Google News is legal. „Google News never shows more than the headlines, a few snippets of text and small thumbnail images,” Powell said in an e-mailed statement. „If people want to read the entire story they have to click through to the newspaper's Web site.” The company has a similar case with Agence France-Presse, which protested Google's linking to the news agency's articles and pictures in the US and in France last year. The Copiepresse action is part of the global issue of the extent to which traditional copyright protections apply to Web sites. The Belgian group's warning in October led Microsoft Corp. to remove newspaper links from its Belgian site.

Microsoft said that it didn't wish „to enter into a legal debate with Copiepresse at this point,” adding that „these measures do not imply any acknowledgement or recognition of Copiepresse's rights and that it reserves all rights.” Belgium's Flemish-language newspapers, such as De Standaard, didn't join the lawsuit, deciding to ask Google to remove them from news searches instead, Alex Fordyn, head of the Flemish newspaper society, said in an interview last month. Google postponed the introduction of its news site in Denmark after newspapers there also complained about links. Google says its mission „is to organize the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful,” according to the company's Web site. That has brought it into conflict with publishers including McGraw Hill Cos. and Pearson Plc, which are suing Google for making portions of books available online.

The Court of First Instance of Brussels on September 5 ordered Google to remove Google News links to the newspapers or face a €1 million daily fine. Google complied on September 18. Under Belgian law, Google was allowed to ask for a re-hearing of the case because it wasn't present in the first court hearing. „On Friday was a reconsideration of the case,” not an appeal, said Powell. A ruling upholding the court's September order would strengthen the case for other publishers to file similar suits because copyright laws across the European Union are similar, said Benoit van Asbroeck, a lawyer at Bird & Bird in Brussels.
A judgment will be announced between Christmas and early January, the court said. Today's hearing, which lasted three hours, was Google's chance to explain the workings and the benefits of search engines, „and the various ways in which publishers can choose to keep their content open or closed to public view,” said Powell. Speaking on the phone from Brussels after the hearing, Margaret Boribon, the Copiepresse secretary-general, said she felt very happy with how things proceeded. „I can't see how the judge could change his opinion,” she said, certain that the court will uphold the September ruling. Shares of Google fell $3.01 to $505 at 1:00 p.m. New York time in Nasdaq Stock Market composite trading and have risen 22% this year. US markets were closed yesterday for the Thanksgiving holiday and ended trading three hours early on Saturday. (Bloomberg)