Google Inc., the world's most-used Internet search engine, is under attack in Belgium.
Copiepresse, a group of 17 French- and German-language newspapers, won a Brussels court ruling in September that forced Google to stop providing links to the papers' Web sites. The threat of legal action persuaded Microsoft Corp. to do the same. Now Copiepresse plans to take the fight to the rest of Europe. „The Internet is not the Wild West,” Margaret Boribon, Copiepresse's secretary-general, said from her office in Brussels. „Our goal is to gather a maximum of people. We want to be part of Google, but not without control over our content.”
The Copiepresse case is part of a global drive by newspaper publishers to force search engines to pay for using their stories and pictures. Advertisers and consumers in Europe spend $50 billion a year on online advertising and Internet access, according to PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP. Google last week settled with photographers, broadcasters and authors who had joined the Copiepresse complaint. Neither side released details of the agreement. The Brussels Court of First Instance held a second hearing in the case November 24 to allow Google, which wasn't represented at the first session, to present its arguments. The court is scheduled to rule by early January. A decision upholding the September order may strengthen the claims of other publishers, because copyright laws are similar throughout the European Union, said Benoit van Asbroeck, a lawyer at Bird & Bird in Brussels.
Google would like to have the newspapers back on its Belgian service, because without them it has little local news, said Rachel Whetstone, a spokeswoman for Mountain View, California-based Google. „Google News is legal and helps news sources that are in it,” said David Drummond, a senior vice president at Google. Google News arrived in Belgium in January, providing users with headlines, photos and the first few lines of news stories, as well as links to newspaper sites. Copiepresse argues that search engines should get permission from publishers before using their content. Copiepresse filed a complaint with the Court of First Instance in February.
The court on September 5 ordered Google to remove the links or face fines of €1 million ($1.31 million) a day. The newspaper association then challenged Microsoft. The Redmond, Washington-based company removed all links from its Belgian site and is in discussions with Copiepresse, said Microsoft spokesman Tom Brookes.
„We're in an industrial revolution,” said Francois Le Hodey, chief executive officer of the newspaper La Libre Belgique. „Look at the situation in 20 years' time. If we don't react now, we will be overcome.” Newspaper content creates „colossal traffic” for search engines, which is profitable only for them, Le Hodey said. Publishers are concerned many readers won't click onto their sites after skimming through Google News headlines. Google News this month postponed its expansion into Denmark after newspapers there complained about its links.
Agence France-Presse last year sued Google in the US and France to prevent it from linking to AFP's content without paying.
Google in August agreed to pay the New York-based Associated Press for stories and pictures. In Belgium, only Flemish-language papers decided not to pursue legal action against Google. The lawsuit may backfire if the first ruling is overturned, said Alex Fordyn, head of the Flemish newspaper society, which represents nine dailies. Google in September made the Flemish group an offer, which didn't involve payments, Fordyn said. „We've now put things on hold pending the outcome of the second court case,” he said.
It will be difficult for Google to win in Belgium because the country's copyright laws forbid unpaid use of content, van Asbroeck said. „After this case, they will be overwhelmed by summonses,” he said. While the EU is governed by a uniform copyright law, there is little agreement about how the law applies to the Internet. Robin Fry of UK law firm Beachcroft LLP said taking bits of text is legal. Van Asbroeck said Belgian law is „more restrictive” and content can't be used without consent. Copiepresse expects publishers to be paid for their content. „We're not asking for catastrophic sums of money,” said Philippe Nothomb, head of legal affairs of Rossel et Cie., which owns Belgium's most-read French daily, Le Soir. „The ruling was clear. If you don't pay you can't use our content.”
Anyone with a Web site should accept a measure of free-riding, said Bernt Hugenholtz, director of the Institute for Information Law at the University of Amsterdam. „This is what the Internet is all about,” he said. „If you restrict that, you are restricting the openness of the Internet. You might be shooting yourself in the foot.” That's especially true since newspaper sales are slumping. Le Soir sales fell to 96,511 in 2005 from 112,149 in 2001, according to Belgium's Centre of Media Information. La Libre's Web site lost 15% of its traffic when Google removed its links, Le Hodey said. Still, the new media model „doesn't work if one side wins and the other loses out,” Nothomb said. (Bloomberg)