Belgian Newspapers Pressure Google for Pay Up for Past Links

A group of Belgian newspapers that won a court ruling against Google last year over its practice of linking to their content is now asking a court to award up to US$77 million in damages.

Copiepresse, which handles copyright issues and protection for newspapers in Belgium, asked a Brussels court to force Google to pay between $51.5 million and $77 million in damages for the past practices, according to news reports.

Google has since stopped linking to the newspapers’ content through its Google News site, and reached an agreement last year to allow some content to be accessible through the main search engine.

Efforts to negotiate a settlement agreement with Google after the court ruled against the search engine in February 2007 — which was itself an affirmation of a similar ruling a year earlier — have failed, Copiepresse reportedly said. Google appealed that ruling, saying at the time it wanted to keep its options open as it negotiated a possible deal.

In addition to the damages, the group is asking the court to force Google to publish the court ruling against its linking practice in a conspicuous place on one of its Web sites for at least 20 days.

Ready to Fight

Copiepresse had forwarded the requests to Google in anticipation of a September court appearance, it said.

Google has yet to receive that documentation, Gabriel Stricker, a spokesperson for the search site, told the E-Commerce Times.

“We appealed the ruling of February 2007 and are awaiting the outcome of that case,” Stricker said. “We strongly believe that Google News and Google Web search are legal and that we have not violated Copiepresse’s copyright. This is why we are appealing the February 2007 ruling. We consider that this new claim for damages is groundless, and we intend to vigorously challenge it.”

In response to the adverse ruling last year, the search engine noted that its news and search sites only present a snippet of a news story, and that its policy is to respect the rights and desires of copyright holders. Google also added at the time that it feels “search engines are of real benefit to publishers because they drive valuable traffic to their Web sites.”

Spreading Worry?

Though the sums being discussed in the Belgium case are relatively tiny to Google, the search engine may be wary of being seen giving ground on its position that linking to news story — and showing a preview of the content — is not a copyright violation.

Doing so could embolden other copyright holders to seek to tap into Google’s deep pockets, Michael G. Kelber, an intellectual property attorney with Neal Gerber Eisenberg, told the E-Commerce Times.

“Google has a real puzzle to put together here,” he said. “They’ve got a global legal framework with potential plaintiffs in every country. What might be expedient in terms of settling one case might cause problems by either raising the prospect of others coming after them for their fair share or setting a bad precedent.”

The fact that copyright laws are different around the world offers Google “some room to maneuver,” Kelber added. “Companies always want to settle these kinds of cases, especially when there’s not that [much] money at stake, but they have to be careful to look at the big picture and fight where they need to fight.”

Because it is involved in enabling users to search and find a host of content — from video and images to entire books — Google is “walking several different tightropes. You can imagine the kind of challenge they face to be sure that the way they handle copyright in books is consistent with video and search and all the rest of their businesses,” Kelber said.

In fact, though the Belgian case has gotten a lot of attention because a court ruled against Google, it’s by far the smaller of the two major copyright cases the search behemoth is now facing. In recent weeks, Google and Viacom have swapped legal filings in that company’s $1 billion suit against the search giant and YouTube. Earlier this week, Google responded to a court filing in which Viacom sharpened its argument against YouTube by highlighting the embedding of YouTube content in other Web sites.

Google maintains it is protected by the Digital Millennium Copyright Act from being held liable for third-party infringement that takes place on its network. It’s not clear when that case might make its way into a courtroom.

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