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.