Google has been speaking out about a proposed law in Germany, which would require search engines and aggregators to pay to license content from publishers via ancillary copyright, in order to display headlines (with links) and snippets of text. You know, the typical display of search results you see in Google News. It does seem to be specific to the Google News format, which takes the beginning of the article (usually not much more than a sentence or two), as opposed to the web search format, which provides more random snippets of text, based on the user’s query. Of course, the law is still being drafted, so who knows?
Do you think such a law would be good for the web? Tell us what you think.
Back in March, the German Ministry of Justice was tasked with penning the law, which in the meantime has gone through multiple drafts. It’s currently said to be on number three.
A Google spokesperson tells WebProNews, “We don’t have any sympathy for these plans, as an ancillary copyright lacks all factual, economic, and legal foundation. And we are not alone with this opinion: The Federation of German Industries (BDI) and 28 other associations vehemently oppose an ancillary copyright for publishers. The German parliament is divided on the issue as well. For a good reason: An ancillary copyright would mean a massive damage to the German economy. It’s a threat to the freedom of information. And it would leave Germany behind internationally as a place for business.”
“Publishers should be innovative in order to be successful,” the Googler adds. “A compulsory levy for commercial internet users means cross-subsidizing publishers through other industries. This is not a sustainable solution.”
“In difficult economic times, the Internet is thriving, generating economic gains, creating jobs and giving struggling businesses a vital lifeline,” the spokesperson says. “It is important that any legislation supports, rather than hinders innovation on the internet to encourage new jobs and economic growth.”
Google’s Kay Oberbeck, out of Hamburg, addressed it in a Google+ post (in German) earlier this week. In that, he said (according to Google Translate’s translation):
A law to the detriment of all , the Internet is an interdisciplinary technology our economy, BITKOM already eleven percent of German jobs from the Internet are dependent, ie some four million jobs. Here lives the power of billions of people and companies that connect with each other, share their knowledge and information. Core are the links and brief Textausrisse that provide the context for a link. If these mini-texts continue to be paid for, which would use for any economically employed for risk. The träfe bloggers, media, start-ups and each company with its own website – and ultimately each individual Internet users. As always try one likes to limit the effect of this “ancillary copyright”: This non-system and world unprecedented intervention into the architecture of the Internet would be the economic and innovation in Germany seriously harm.
In other words, this law could do a good deal of harm to Germany’s economy, which largely depends on the Internet, and the sharing of information. This law would hinder that sharing of information, potentially reaching beyond search engines like Google, but possibly to bloggers and Internet users in general.
GigaOm’s David Meyer got some additional commentary out of him (in English), quoting him as saying, “Nobody sees a real reason why this should be implemented. It’s really harmful, not just for users who wouldn’t find as much information as they find now, but such a law is also not justified for economic reasons or judicial reasons.”
Joe McNamee, advocacy coordinator at European Digital Rights (EDRi), tells WebProNews, “The draft proposal for ancillary copyright provisions aims at regulating (direct and indirect) commercial use of press products. Under the draft law, publishers would be able to prohibit further use of their products. Services, such as Google, who publish even very small parts of published contents would have to obtain a licence and pay a tax in order to do so. Publishers have been pushing for extensive rights to regulate what is indexed by search engines, arguing that existing HTML is not enough.”
“The justification for the legislative proposal in Germany is therefore that services, such as Google re-publish (or ‘steal’) snippets of content and benefit from journalistic work – hence publishers deserve a share of Google’s profits,” McNamee adds. “Fact is, however, that things are not all quite as bad as publishers sometimes describe them. For example, Germany’s biggest publisher Axel Springer announced an increase of 55% for its online products in the first half of 2012.”
It’s a pretty classic storyline, really. Media giants want to get paid because search engines and aggregators are getting benefit from their content. The concept of “fair use” always comes into play, as does the nature of the web in general, which is built upon content linking to other content. Search engines aren’t publishing full text content. They’re providing links with small snippets, and sending traffic on to the source, for those who want to read the content.
“The fact that these snippets drive large amounts of traffic to the publishers’ websites, to their benefit is neatly ignored,” says McNamee. “The logic is broadly similar to Disney demanding to be compensated by airlines for advertising flights to Florida using pictures of Disneyland.”
Google even offers a variety of options to publishers who offer paid content, or content behind other walls. And of course, there’s always the good ol’ robots.txt.
Google has dealt with similar mentality from media giants like News Corp. and the Associated Press in the past. Google actually did license AP content to be able to host it.
But in this case, we’re talking about an actual law, and Google is probably not willing to enter into such agreements with every publisher in its results. What would Google’s plan of action be should the law take effect? Perhaps Google could simply not include content from publishers who required compensation, and let those who are simply happy with the traffic opportunities sign up for inclusion for free. You can already submit your site to Google News as it is, and it’s not as though there will be a shortage of content. It would be interesting to see if those seeking fees would miss the traffic, and ultimately submit.
Of course, there is always the possibility that Google would index other sites and blogs who are still linking to other publishers as the original sources, which would likely lead to more legal targeting of blogs by said publishers on similar grounds (if the law doesn’t already lead to that to begin with).
Step outside of the search engine mindset for a moment and just think about your own blogging habits. Let’s say you found some point in this article interesting, and wanted to discuss it in a post on your blog. Maybe you wanted to quote something I said, and even include a link. Under such a law, perhaps we, the publisher, may not like that you’re using our content, and decide to make a legal case out of it. Of course, we wouldn’t do that, as we encourage links and the sharing of information.
The point is that this is how the web works, and any law aiming to prevent that, can’t be good for the web as we know it.
You can also think about how social media sharing works. You know what happens when you share a link on Facebook? It displays the link a snippet of text – pretty much in exactly the same fashion Google does.
Does that mean Facebook would be required to pay publishers too, even though it’s users sharing the links? Does it make users liable? You can see what a legal mess this could be.
“Ancillary copyright provisions could potentially become a tool for publishers to put bloggers under pressure and ultimately stifle free speech,” says McNamee. “Bloggers or users of social media publishing snippets generally don’t have the financial power to defend themselves in court. The first draft of the law would have created legal uncertainty.”
“However, after harsh criticism from civil society groups, the draft law was amended to explicitly exclude bloggers who use ads or micro-payment systems on their sites,” he notes. “Still, the current draft would restrict the diversity of information on the internet. Due to the vague definition of a ‘press product’, search engines would need to conclude thousands of individual contracts. Smaller publishers and bloggers do not have the capacity to do the same. So this is likely to result in a creation of exceptions for monopolies, leading to an uncompetitive market situation. Ultimately, this will also limit the freedom of communication and freedom to do business.”
“Even though Google, understandably is campaigning against the proposal due to the wider precedent that it would set, as an isolated case, it would be quite beneficial to them,” he says. “The bureaucratic, administrative and financial costs in respecting such a law would be a significant barrier to market entry, helping Google maintain its market share.”
Meyer points to an earlier version of the law, which even went so far as to indicate that employers would have to pay publishers for letting employees read the news online at work. It does appear that the law is aiming more towards search engines now, as Meyer notes that a second draft narrowed the scope of the legislation in this way, but then the whole thing just seems like a double standard.
Where is the line between a search engine and an aggregator? An aggregator and a blog or social media account? The lines aren’t that clear, because people and companies use different platforms in different ways. Besides, according to Meyer, the publishers aren’t even happy with the second draft, and liked the first draft better.
Rumor has it that the third draft of the law has been finalized, and is going to be negotiated in the Chancellor’s cabinet end of August, according to McNamee.
The whole thing is absurd, for a variety of reasons, he says. “It is absurd because the proposal, which would, as I said, benefit Google, was proposed, at least in part, due to anti-Google feeling among certain German politicians. It is absurd because the proposal seeks to ‘compensate’ publishers for something that is actually beneficial to them. It is absurd, because European copyright law is on its knees due to the excessive compliance costs and bureaucracy – and the publishers are asking for more costs and more bureaucracy and claim to support copyright enforcement.”
Do you agree that it’s absurd? Do you think that such a law would be good for the web? Let us know in the comments.