Bloomberg reports that Google has lost two related copyright cases in German courts. Both involved display of thumbnails in image search results. Google can appeal the rulings.
According to Bloomberg, the German court in one of the cases found that copyright law had been violated because Google displayed images without permission of the copyright holder. It disregarded the fact that the images were smaller and presented at lower resolution. By contrast, a US Federal Court (9th Circuit) found that display of image thumbnails was within the protections of the “fair use” doctrine.
The German rulings would appear to set up a conflict between US and German (potentially EU) law in connection with image search. Again, Google can and will likely appeal the German decisions.
If the rulings are upheld, however, they pose numerous practical challenges for Google with image search and in presenting images in search results. For example, how would Google know which works were copyrighted and which were not on an algorithmic basis? Would thumbnail images of copyrighted works in Google.com search results (or image search), accessed from a computer in Germany, create liability for Google? And would Americans or other non-Germans have legal standing to go into a German court and sue Google despite the fact that they wouldn’t have the same right to do so in the US?
This is all my speculation as this point, but the implications are complex to say the least.