Google Sulks in Wake of Belgian Court Decision

In what seems to me to be a petty display of childishness, Google has refused to post at its own Websites in Belgium the news of a recent defeat it suffered in a Belgian courtroom.  In contrast to the thousands of other news items that are automatically Hoovered on to its News page on a daily basis, Google claimed that the news had been so widely reported that reporting it at its Belgian news site was unnecessary and "disproportionate." 

The New York Times, which has been reporting regularly on the subject, reported yesterday in two related stories (the second one is here) that the judge in the suit rejected Google's contention. 

The dispute itself relates to whether the thumbnail images, headlines and news summaries that Google reproduces at its Google News site violate the copyright of the news content owners to which it links.  I blogged on this issue a few days ago, in the context of a recently announced settlement between Google and the Associated Press, under which the AP will allow Google to continue to display its content, although at a new area of its site, and subject to an agreement between Google and AP the terms of which have not been disclosed.

The Belgian dispute is more serious, because Google has already agreed to honor the rest of the Belgian court's order, and is no longer digesting news from three French-language Belgian newspapers at its two Belgian news sites.  And in a similar law suit brought by Agence France-Press in the Washington D.C. District Court, AFP is seeking $17.5 million in damages for copyright damages; Google contends instead that its news snippets fall under the fair use doctrine. 

The most intriguing news in the two Times stories relates to a technical solution in the works that may make it easier for the parties to resolve the dispute outside of the courts, assuming that Google decides that it would rather switch than fight, and if it and the publishers in question can agree on the surrounding economic terms.  According to the Times:

A group of newspaper trade associations announced plans Friday for a pilot project by year’s end to automatically grant republication authorizations to Internet search engines. 

The World Association on Newspapers, the European Publishers Council, the International Publishers Association and the European Newspaper Association said jointly that the new tool should answer problems such as Google’s dispute with Belgium newspapers and make newspaper content more widely available. The group did not say whether the tool would include a payment mechanism, promising to provide more details within weeks.

In the meantime, what happens if Google defies the Court by continuing to refuse to digest yesterday’s news at its Belgian news pages?  First, of course, it is keeping the story in the news (elsewhere, if not on its own news pages).  And second, it will be required to pay a 550.000 Euro (US $640,000) per day fine until it relents or wins on appeal — a penalty that seems rather childish to me as well.

It’s a shame that something this important seems to be progressing in such a schoolyard fashion.  Hopefully a resolution will be reached soon that does not, as a result of such pushing and pulling, lead to an unfortunate court precedent that would undercut the value that such linking can have for content owners as well as those that link to them.  The ideal would be for a set of rules to evolve in the marketplace that enables an appropriate degree of free sharing of news on the Internet that is also respectful of the economic rights of content owners.

We’ll see, and perhaps sooner rather than later if more content owners pile on in more jurisdictions.  Given the variation in copyright laws on the issue of such use in countries around the world, this could become quite messy, even within more cohesive regions such as the EU.  If that happens, we may be in for a long run of confusion, expensive litigation, and a chilling effect on Website practices, given the fact that any given Website can be viewed from – and perhaps be subjected to the laws of – any other country in the world.

Updated:  The Times reports today in a short note on page A12 (but not on line) that Google has thought better of paying 550,000 Euros ($640,000) a day just to diss a Belgian judge, and instead published the court order in question at its Belgian News site.  As I don’t speak French, I was only able to locate a number of third party articles on the subject, but not the order itself.  Perhaps someone more multi-lingual than I will find it and post the link in a comment below.

Does this indicate that Google has cooled off?  Apparently not.  The same note in the Times states that Google declined to comment on its decision – but has announced that it will appeal the order that it has already complied with.  One wonders what the cost of that appeal will be.  Google shareholders take not. 

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