German Lawmakers Get Weak on Google

Google and other aggregators won a partial victory Friday in the lower house of the German parliament, where lawmakers approved legislation that would allow publishers to protect their digital copyrights by charging to fully reproduce their content. Questions remain about whether other countries — particularly the U.S. — could follow Germany’s example.

The proposal allows Google and other search engines continued free use of text in links and short summaries. A previous draft of the bill would have required permission or a paid license from publishers before using headlines and parts of online articles. That could have forced Google and other search engines to pay content producers a portion of the cash it earned from ads running next to search results that contained clips of content.

The proposal still must pass in the upper house, the Bundesrat, in order to become law.

Stifling Communication?

German publishers supported the bill in an era where traditional print media outlets are struggling to remain profitable when so much free digital content is available. Google, on the other hand, loudly opposed the first version of the legislation and sponsored a “Defend Your Net” campaign, which called on German Google users to sign a petition against the law.

The newer version is more acceptable, said Ralf Bremer, a spokesperson for Google in Germany, but the company said it is still concerned that the proposed legislation could stifle innovation.

“As a result of today’s vote, ancillary copyright in its most damaging form has been stopped,” Bremer told the E-Commerce Times. “However, the best outcome for Germany would be no new legislation because it threatens innovation, particularly for startups. It’s also not necessary because publishers and Internet companies can innovate together, just as Google has done in many other countries.”

Potential Global Impact

In an evolving digital content arena, innovation with search engines or other aggregators might not be as easy as Google makes it seem, said Chun Wright, IP enforcement and Internet attorney at the Law Office of CTW.

“The law takes the important step of recognizing that copyright owners should be fairly compensated by the search engines that reap enormous financial benefits from copying their works,” he told the E-Commerce Times. “Given the new ‘snippet’ exception, whether the law, if passed, will actually compensate the publishers in any meaningful way will remain to be seen.”

It might be a while — if ever — for similar legislation to be introduced in the U.S.

“Other countries will be watching this law and how it is implemented closely,” Wright said. “If the law works and achieves its goals, I think we can see similar legislation in other countries, depending on their appetite for government regulation in this area. As for the U.S., I think it’s more likely that the government would encourage the industries to devise a voluntary solution than to pass legislation.”

Getting Past the Ambiguities

The German proposal raises more questions than it answers, said Daniel D. Woo, attorney at Law and IP Consultant Affiliates. As digital communications are making the world smaller, it becomes almost impossible to enforce certain rules within traditional physical borders.

“Would this create substantial technology and cost challenges to have one set of rules for Germany and another for other countries?” he asked. “What about fair use? In the U.S., fair use is tied to freedom of the press and freedom of speech. It’s unclear how the German law would apply to only a portion of a news report or other media where fair use might be allowable in the U.S.”

Those questions are difficult to answer regarding legislation that will affect the tech industry, Wright pointed out. In this case in particular, where it seemed that a more vague and weakened version of the bill was needed to pass, it becomes even more unclear who the real winners and losers might be in Germany.

“Lawmakers and stakeholders have always strived to leave bills open for future technologies,” Woo told the E-Commerce Times. “However, newly drafted bills often contain language that is vague or does not cover every future scenario. In Germany it could be a draw, depending on how the ambiguities in the law are resolved.”

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