Google Loses In Belgium Newspaper Case

A Belgium court has found that Google did violate copyright when including material from several Belgian newspapers in its search index. Google may have to pay a fine, but the ruling is far more positive for the company. Google can continue to index content without explicit permission. NOTE: The story is developing, so I will be adding postscripts as new information flows in. Google Blog announcement also now up here.

Google loses copyright case launched by Belgian newspapers from the Associated Press and Google Breached Newspapers’ Copyright, Court Rules from Reuters (and see here) explains that Google will have to pay a retroactively daily fine of €25,000 (about $32,000) for the it failed to remove content after Belgian newspaper group Copiepresse asked for removal of its members’ material. (Note: Techmeme has a further roundup of coverage here)

Whether the group’s real goal — to force Google to pay the newspapers for future inclusion — will happen remains uncertain. The newspapers could have kept themselves out of Google without fighting a court case (my past article over at Search Engine Watch, Google’s Belgium Fight: Show Me The Money, Not The Opt-Out, Say Publishers, explains this in more depth). Now that the first round is over, they’re still out — and Google is not prevented from getting permission before including other content.

Copiepresse started the legal action last March, arguing that Google’s use of the widely accepted and respected robots.txt or meta robots standards as a way of opting-out of indexing was somehow trying to impose copyright rules of Google’s own making on content owners. This is regardless of the fact that robots.txt existed before Google did.

A summons was sent to Google in the United States. The company received it but failed to act upon it. That resulted in a court hearing in Belgium on September 5th, without Google being represented in court.

A ruling ten days later, on September 15, required that Google remove the sites and post a notice on its web site. Google removed the sites but initially stalled on posting the ruling until an appeal on the damages could be heard. When that went against them, Google finally complied on September 25, adding it to the Google Belgium, Google Images Belgium and Google News Belgium home pages.

In November, Google’s case was reheard. At the same time, Google reached a content agreement with Sofam and Scam, two Belgian groups that cover photographic and audio/visual content. Those groups joined the Copiepresse case in October. The agreement got them to drop out of the case. Google didn’t specify what the agreement covered, other than to say:

"It’s a way for us to use their content in new ways beyond what copyright law currently allows us without the permission of the authors," said Powell said.

My between-the-lines analysis of the situation I wrote at the time explained:

The Sofam deal might help solve some of Google’s legal issues in Belgium. The group represents the rights of nearly 4,000 photographers in Belgium, Google said. Google did NOT say how this might translate into usage at Google News. However, potentially this means Google can have photos in Google News even from publication that it had to remove from Google Belgium by court order. The Sofam deal might provide legal cover there. Of course, if those publications are the only source of certain photos — and they block use through systems like robots.txt — that would still keep the content out of Google. I’m also following up more on this particular issue.

The deals do not restore access for Google to list textual news stories it finds. That means it has to remain hopeful that the legal case will go its way, if it wants to prevent some type of negotiations with the publishers that have opted-out.

If the case goes against Google, it doesn’t appear to be facing in major damages. If these were to be levied, that should have happened when it lost the first time. Instead, the publishers will remain out of Google, making Google News Belgium less useful than it would be. However, they also deny themselves traffic from Google. Possibly Google might negotiate a payment-based system to include them. Equally possible, it might also decide to hold its ground and focus attention on other countries, to see if it can wait the publishers out.

If the case goes for Google, then it regain content that will help enhance Google News Belgium, unless those publisher decide to specifically block spidering, which Google would almost certainly honor.

Copiepresse put Microsoft on notice back in October that it might sue, resulting in Microsoft removing content. Then it went after Yahoo in January. Margaret Boribon from Copiepresse, who I did a long-interview with back in September, said:

"We’ll go to court if they don’t do anything," said Boribon. "Experience proves that these sites don’t remove the links easily."

This is simply not true. The content could have been removed through the use of robots.txt files or meta robots files such as explained on the Google Blog recently. But keeping content out wasn’t the goal.

Experience over the past decade of search engines proves that existing methods work great for getting content removed. This case was never about getting content out. It was about trying to blackmail Google into including content. Now the newspapers may get a large fine coming their way, but whether Google will feel it still wants to cut a deal with them remains unseen. Certainly it has no need to in order to keep indexing content in general.

Postscript:

I’ve just talked with Google’s public relations department in Europe. Some more points on the story.

First, they are appealing the ruling. Didn’t they already appeal it? No, it was a rehearing of the original case, granted because Google wasn’t present to defend itself the first time. Now that the case has been reheard, an actual appeal to a higher court can happen.

How much is the fine? Originally, I thought this might be up to $4.4 million, using the 139 days cited in the Reuters article above. But that time period seems to stretch from when the initial ruling happened until now. Google suspects they are only liable from the time period from when the initial ruling happened, September 15, and from when content was removed — the next day.

Google also says the fine isn’t automatic. Copiepresse must go back to the court and say they want to claim compensation of a set amount, then be granted approval.

How does the ruling potentially change the way Google indexes content in Belgium. Not much. Google says that unlike cases in the US or the UK, the ruling will be seen legally as specific to this particular situation rather than indexing in general.

In particular, Google says that the other groups that joined up with Copiepresse after the initial ruling have eight days to make removal requests if they are still in Google. Google then has to act on those requests, sent via email, within 24 hours. That’s the extent of the ruling. For all other sites, Google does not see the ruling as requiring a change to how it operates.

Postscript 2:

I’ve now talked with Yoram Elkaim, legal counsel for Google who oversees Google News legal issues in Europe. First I asked more about the ruling is not seen by Google to set a precedent:

"Because of the legal system in most European countries, there is no rule of precedence. That means the court here was really asked to apply the law on the specific situation and on the plaintiffs in this situation."

What about the time frames and removal by email?

"We have eight days [from receiving notification of the ruling, which has yet to be served on Google in California] to give them [the plaintiffs] an email address that they can use to notify them of infringing content, then we have 24 hours to take their content out of the index."

So this really only impacts the people who were part of this case?

"We have no plans to modify the product [how Google crawls and list sites] itself. Since this case has been fairly high profile, we would assume any publishers [in Belgium] that have problems being in the index would have come to us. And if they do it today, we’d remove them as we’ve always done."

How much might the fine potentially be? Copiepresse says Google might need to pay for nearly 140 days worth of violations.

"Right now, there’s a disagreement on whether Google did comply with the September ruling. In our view, we did within a few days," Elkaim said. We removed all those web sites represented by Copiepress from Google News and the Google search engine. In our view, this aspect is unchanged and doesn’t call for additional measures at this point."

Explaining further, he said:

"The Copiepresse organization is arguing that Google is not complying with the ruling and that the daily fines are still going."

How? Because some of the content is showing up in Google sites outside of Google Belgium itself.

"We interpreted the Belgian ruling as applying to the Belgian web sites. Copiepresse thinks we were too narrow, on one hand. But on the other hand, they criticized from taking us off the sites entirely, rather than taking off the cache feature [from listings]."

Will Google seek to cut a deal to include these web sites in Google News?

"We’re very much open to finding ways to resolve this issue out of court and hopefully doing that without compromising our principles," Elkaim said. "That’s what we were able to achieve with other groups."

"To the extend that they would like us to pay to just index their sites as we’ve done so far, I don’t think that will happen. But if we can find other ways to cooperate, such as more substantial use of their  content through maybe a licensing agreement, we wouldn’t rule that out. But just paying for the privilege of showing snippets and links to their web sites, we wouldn’t do that."

Postscript: 3Copiepresse emailed the following comments:

As you can imagine, we are off course very pleased with the decision which confirms almost completely the first one (5 September 2006), except on the amount of fines and the database legislation.

For your information, the first decision is already posted in French and English on our website www.copiepresse.be. Tuesday’s decision is also posted there but only in French at the moment. As soon as we have it translated (which has to be done by a judicial translator), we’ll post it on the site in English too.

I’ve read your article. Some elements seem to need some corrections :

Facts:

  • first court hearing: August 29th 2006
  • first decision: September 5th 2006.

Tuesday’s decision:

Contrary to what Google says, it is not allowed to continue to index content without prior permission: the first decision has been confirmed and Google’s acts are considered illegal regarding the publishers content. The obligation for copyright owners to notify Google and ask it to remove their content only applies to the authors’ societies (SAJ, Assucopie) and not to Copiepresse. Our members’ rights have been fully recognized by the judge: their names and websites are sufficiently well-known.

The fines have been reduced to 25.000 euros/day instead of 1.000.000 euros/day: but this is absolutely not crucial. What counts is that the judge confirmed that reuse of content by a search engine or portal is contrary to the publishers’ rights following the European copyright legislation.

  • Agreement Google/Sofam: to our knowledge, this agreement only covers photographers who do not work for press publishers and not all Sofam members.
     
  • Goal of our action: we don’t try to blackmail anyone, only to make clear that it is not legal to reuse someone else’s contents to make money without remunerating that person. Why should people accept to pay for computers, screens, programs, connection fees … but not a cent for contents. What are "tubes" without content?
     
  • Postscript: Copiepresse must not go back to court to claim compensation: there is a written procedure to get the decision executed but no further ruling is needed.
     
  • Postscript 2: there is no such system as precedence in continental right (as opposed to UK and US) but nothing prevents a judge to look at other cases and get inspired by previous decisions. It even happens quite often, specially in technical matters, even if the specific situation always has to be taken into account.

Regarding Google not complying with the first decision: since google.com and google.fr are also accessible from Belgium, we do not see why Google should think that the decision only applies to google.be. Since they disindexed our members from all their search engines, we don’t understand why they didn’t remove the cached pages from sites "outside" Belgium.

Copiepresse is open to discussions in order to find an agreement satisfying all parties, taking into account that content are valuable. Without remuneration, content will disappear: who can afford to work for free?

Related Topics: Channel: Industry | Google: Legal | Legal: Copyright

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About The Author: is a Founding Editor of Search Engine Land. He’s a widely cited authority on search engines and search marketing issues who has covered the space since 1996. Danny also serves as Chief Content Officer for Third Door Media, which publishes Search Engine Land and produces the SMX: Search Marketing Expo conference series. He has a personal blog called Daggle (and keeps his disclosures page there). He can be found on Facebook, Google + and microblogs on Twitter as @dannysullivan.

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