Press, consumer groups jostle over Google News, copyrights

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A decision by a top Belgian court that Google News violates copyright rules has spilled over into the EU policy arena ahead of a long-awaited review of rules regulating the use of intellectual property.

In a decision that may prove uncomfortable for the search engine, Belgium's top court rejected last week an appeal by Google against a 2006 suit filed by Copiepresse, a publishers' lobby, claiming copyright infringement of Belgian news.

EU lobbyists for consumers and newspapers are at loggerheads over the court's decision.

In a statement released yesterday evening, European consumer lobby BEUC castigated the Belgian court's decision as a step back in time for copyright law.

BEUC claims that not only does the Belgian ruling set a perecedent for other newspaper groups to follow in Copiepresse's footsteps, but also shows a restrictive interpretation of EU copyright exceptions, initially designed to ensure crucial information was not excluded from school curricula.

Copiepresse's complaint echoes those of newspaper magnate Rupert Murdoch, who also claimed that content from the many papers he owns, like the UK's leading Times newspaper, was being published without prior consent.

The furore is becoming louder as both sides await for the publication next week of European Commission proposals to update the EU's Intellectual Property Rights Enforcement Directive. The new rules are expected to outline copyright exceptions, limitations and levies.

But EU consumer groups now fear the worst. "Exceptions to, and limitations on, rights holders' exclusive rights are an important mechanism for balanced copyright law. This ruling sets these EU aims back and significantly restricts Internet users," reads a statement from BEUC.

European newspaper lobbies are overjoyed. The European Newspaper Publishers' Association claims that the news aggregator dents publishers' traffic figures and that content is taken without consent.

"Effective enforcement of copyright is particularly important at a time when newspaper content is increasingly used by third parties without prior authorisation and without remuneration," Francine Cunningham from ENPA told EURACTIV last night. 

Google insists this is not true. The company says newspapers have a range of options to either opt out or limit aggregators' access to their content.

For example, source code called robots.txt inserted into the text signals that the search engine cannot crawl that particular content.

One Pass and First Click Free are two other schemes designed by the search engine to limit its crawling reach.

Though BEUC claims Copiepresse's victory will send a signal to publishers to create the same furore, an anonymous source close to the company argues that a decision made in a civil court will have no bearing accross borders.

"This is very atypical to what is currently happing in online news," as many publishers are cashing in as a result of their Google exposure, the source continued.

"The ruling sets a dangerous precedent by a restrictive interpretation of the copyright exceptions regime. Exceptions to, and limitations on, right holders’ exclusive rights are an important mechanism for balanced copyright law. This ruling sets these EU aims back and significantly restricts Internet users," reads a stement from EU consumer lobby BEUC.

The counterargument to this is made by ENPA, the newspaper lobby, in the following statement: "A recognition of the value of content and respect for copyright is as relevant as ever for the digital environment. The EU goal of promoting access on the Internet to the incredible range of European creative and media content can only be achieved by placing copyright and value of content at the centre of the EU Digital Agenda."

Google issued a statement on the ruling, saying: "We believe that referencing information with short headlines and direct links to the source - as it is practised by search engines, Google News and just about everyone on the web - is not only legal but also encourages web users to read newspapers online. We remain committed to collaborating further with publishers to explore new ways for them to make money from online news."

Google News is a computer-generated news site that aggregates headlines from more than 4,500 English-language news sources worldwide, gathering similar stories together and displaying them according to readers' interests.

In 2006 Copiepresse, which represents French and German language newspapers in Belgium, filed a lawsuit agaisnt Google claiming that ite news aggregator, which publishes headlines and excerpts from the press, infringes copyright.

In 2007, the search engine complied with a first ruling by a Belgian court that Google take down Copiepresse content, which incidentally does not represent all Belgian newspapers. Google appealed and the recent decision is the rejection of that appeal. 

Publisher' discontents with Google peaked in 2009 when Rupert Murdoch, the owner of the monolithic News Corp. group, began castigating the search engine for "stealing" content.

At the time he threatened to sue both the search engine and the British Broadcasting Corporation, which aggregates content from organisations under the Murdoch umbrella. His threats never materialised and instead the media tycoon imposed paywalls to regain control over the web's reach into the group's content. 

  • 18 May: Commission expected to table proposals for a European intellectual property rights strategy covering patents, trademarks, geographical indications and IPR enforcement.

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