In an ongoing legal battle, a group of Belgian newspapers want Google to pay millions of dollars for publishing and storing copyrighted content. Copiepresse, the newspaper copyright group representing the French-language publishers, has summoned Google to appear before a Brussels court on Sept. 18. The group hopes judges will decide the search company should pay between $51.7 million and $77.5 million in damages for infringing on newspaper copyrights.
Copiepresse is also calling for Google to pay a provisional amount of $6.3 million, though it has publicly stated it is still willing to settle.
Google could not immediately be reached for comment, but has consistently said it has not infringed on Belgian newspaper copyrights. The search giant appealed a court ruling last year that said Google could not reproduce excerpts from the papers on its sites.
Google Walks the Copyright Tightrope
"I can see why Google would want to appeal. Google is trying to walk a tightrope. Obviously, Google doesn't want to litigate against every newspaper outlet or copyright holder that comes after them. And they can't be seen as folding," said Michael G. Kelber, a member of the Neal, Gerber & Eisenberg law firm's intellectual-property group.
As Kelber sees it, Google has to work to protect the fair-use doctrine and establish that copyright holders won't be successful in litigation against the search king. On the other hand, if Google can devise a business solution where it can pay a nominal fee, or otherwise come to agreeable terms with Copiepresse, it may be cleaner to settle the case than to litigate in a foreign court.
Either way, Google could see additional suits from copyright holders around the world -- and that could turn into a nightmare for the company, which is already embroiled in a $1 billion copyright lawsuit with Viacom over its YouTube property. "The law isn't always evenly applied," Kelber said. "Even copyright law that has international conventions is not always applied evenly throughout the entire world, and Google is a world brand. So I think they've got a delicate balancing act."
Setting a Precedent
Copiepresse first filed suit against Google in 2006. The case has dragged out since then, with the court first ordering Google to remove the content from its Google News site and its main search engine. Google complied at the time. But the company added links to Belgian newspapers in its main search results in May 2007. Copiepresse cited that move as one reason why negotiations to settle the case failed.
"The key here for Google is trying to make some legal headway where it thinks it can, and then try to come up with creative solutions on a case-by-case basis. It's like any mass settlement. If you look at massive tort litigation, you have to be really careful how you settle cases along the way so you don't create even more litigation," Kelber said. "You don't want to set up a precedent that's going to hurt you down the road."