Google had its day in a European court -- and lost. A Brussels court on Tuesday ruled that the search giant violated copyright laws by publishing links to articles from Belgian newspapers without permission.
The Brussels court has fined Google 25,000 euros, or $32,600, for each day it displayed links to the Belgian newspaper's content. The court's decision is more lenient than its initial September ruling that fined Google for damages of up to one million euros a day and required the California firm to publish the judgment on the home page of its Web site.
"It is important to remember that both Google Web Search and Google News only ever show a few snippets of text," Rachel Whetstone, Google's European director of communications and public affairs, said in a statement. "If people want to read the entire story they have to click through to the Web publisher's site where the information resides." She maintained that Google is operating legally and providing critical information to Internet users.
Google News Issues
Copiepresse, which manages copyright issues for more than a dozen Belgium newspapers, brought the case against Google last August. Copiepress claimed that Google's search engine and news site breached copyrights. In September, the court ruled in favor of Copiepresse and ordered Google to remove these publishers' content from both Google.be and Google News. Google complied with that order and also posted the ruling to both home pages.
Google said the Tuesday ruling does not affect the current content of Google News because the Web sites Copiepress represents have already been removed from Google News. According to Whitestone, if publishers do not want their Web sites to appear in search results, technical standards like robots.txt and metatags enable them automatically to prevent their content from being indexed.
"In addition, Google has a clear policy of respecting the wishes of content owners. If a newspaper does not want to be part of Google News, we remove their content from our index -- all the newspaper has to do is ask," Whitestone said. "There is no need for legal action and all the associated costs."
Aggregation and Copyright
Doug Wood, a partner at the law firm of Reed Smith LLP, said the principle behind the Belgium case -- diverting revenues from publishers by bypassing the home page and shifting eyes away from ads that visitors might have clicked -- is an old argument. He pointed out that the debate started in the early days of the Internet and essentially boils down to fair use.
The question to be determined in these types of cases, he noted, is the economic impact on the publisher. That means determining how many people are being diverted that would otherwise have gone straight to the original source of the content. That's a difficult question to answer, according to Wood.
Despite Copiepresse's apparent victory, Wood said he does not expect publishers in the United States to seek similar remedies. "We are too far out of the box and so far along in this race of information technology," he insisted. "One could argue that by the time I aggregate that news and get it to you, it's old news. So I'm not diverting anybody from you."
American courts, Wood added, have a track record of taking modern advances into account when applying decades-old law. He cited a 1984 Supreme Court ruling that refused to inhibit progress by denying consumer's rights to video tape television programs on their VCRs and watch them later.
"We can look at the Google case in Belgium as an application of a classical application intellectual property law," Wood concluded. "But the Belgium case is far from over."