The European Commission has assured those involved that the EU’s controversial copyright directive is “not in danger,” following Google’s announcement that it will avoid renumerating content creators by implementing technical changes to the way it displays news online.
Google announced on Wednesday (25 September) it would avoid signing license agreements with press publishers by only displaying a portion of the text necessary to comply with the EU’s copyright directive.
Article 15 of the directive, which was adopted in April, gives press publishers the right to seek remuneration from platforms for re-posting their content.
But “very short extracts” are excluded from the scope of the directive, which France was the first and only country thus far to have transposed into national law.
Google’s move provoked the ire of French policymakers, with France’s Culture Minister Franck Riester calling Google’s decision “unacceptable”.
Digital Secretary Cédric O added that the tech giant’s move is “disrespectful of the spirit of the European directive and the French law.”
Copyright ‘not in danger’
French publishers were equally scornful. “You can’t have the choice between appearing and disappearing,” said Pierre Louette, CEO of Les Echos and Le Parisien newspapers, referring to Google’s decision to remove portions of text that would make it liable for remunerating publishers.
The European Commission, meanwhile, vowed that the Copyright Directive was still alive.
“The Directive is not in danger. On the contrary it makes EU copyright rules fit for today’s digital world and will make it much easier for creators and right holders, press editors and journalists to be remunerated for the online use of their content,” a Commission Spokesperson told EURACTIV.
The Commission also attempted to assure tech platforms like Google that their move to avoid having to pay “neighbouring rights” to press publishers was not warranted.
“During the legislative negotiations, the co-legislators explicitly excluded uses of individual words and very short extracts of press publications,” sometimes also referred to as snippets, the Commission said.
Such snippets were excluded from the scope of the Directive when they don’t affect the high investments made by publishers in the production of press publications, the EU executive pointed out.
“This means that they can be used without any authorisation and for free,” the Commission admitted.
A bigger backlash to come?
Despite the attempt at reassurance from the European Commission, Google has not taken any chances.
“When the French law comes into force, Google will no longer display an overview of the content in France for European press publishers,” said Richard Gingras, Google’s VP for news.
MEPs who shepherded the file through Parliament weren’t surprised by Google’s announcement. Socialist MEP Tiemo Wölken responded to the move by tweeting rhetorically “who would have thought that?”. Mathias Vermeulen, a former assistant to ex-MEP Marietje Schaake who helped shape the directive, said he “had told “everyone for four years during the EU copyright wars,” that Google would not commit to licensing agreements.
Indeed, the warning signs had been there from the start. Google’s Gingras had previously told EURACTIV that there could be an even more severe backlash from Google against the copyright changes.
Speaking in December, he said that Google may consider withdrawing its news aggregator service from the EU entirely, saying that he was “deeply concerned” about the reforms.
“The possibility of us shutting down the Google News service in the EU is very real,” Gingras said, adding that Google had to take similar measures after the Spanish introduced their own copyright law in 2014.
However, some of Google’s rivals have been quick to commit to fairly remunerating press publishers, with Eric Léandri, the head of the search engine Qwant saying that he intends to strike up a deal for French publishers akin to a recent agreement between VG media and German press publishers, with 5% of revenues generated from users clicking on links being passed onto online media.
[Edited by Frédéric Simon]