German Copyright Law Targets Google Links

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BERLIN -- German lawmakers approved legislation Friday that grants publishers the right to charge search engines and other online aggregators for reproducing their stories, but continues to allow the free use of text in links and brief summaries.

As originally proposed by the government of Chancellor Angela Merkel last year, the law was seen as a clear attempt by a European government to force major Internet companies like Google to share some of the billions of euros they earn from the sale of advertising placed alongside the news that Google links to.

But a last-minute change, proposed this past week by the Free Democratic Party, the junior partner in Ms. Merkel's government, allowed for the use of "individual words or the smallest excerpts of text" free of charge, meaning that only those companies who reproduce full texts for commercial use will be required to compensate the news publishers.

The weakened bill passed Germany's lower house, the Bundestag, by a vote of 293 to 243. But it will require approval by Germany's upper house, the Bundesrat, which is controlled by the Social Democrats and the Greens, in the opposition, which have sought to have the bill scrapped altogether.

"No one except for a few big publishers wants this law," said Tabea Rössner, a member of the Greens and a media expert, during the debate before the vote on Friday. "Certainly no one in the online world."

Google welcomed the fact that only a weakened version had passed, but made clear its opposition to any form of legislation.

The company had bitterly opposed the original proposal and waged a campaign dubbed "Defend Your Net," both online and through full-page ads in the very publications that would profit from the proposed law, known as an ancillary copyright law because it extends copyright to new areas.

Google argued that the law would impinge on the free flow of information and innovation online.

"As a result of today's vote, ancillary copyright in its most damaging form has been stopped," said Ralf Bremer, a spokesman for Google in Germany, who argued that the law was "not necessary because publishers and Internet companies can innovate together, just as Google has done in many other countries."

Google does not sell advertising on its German news aggregation service, which displays snippets of articles and links to the originating sites. But the company earns billions of euros from advertising on its search engine and other services.

Most German newspaper publishers, on the other hand, generate only minuscule revenue online from advertising or other sources, like so-called pay walls around their content.

Consequently, they welcomed the law, even in its weakened form, as an instrument that would allow them to determine the conditions under which material produced by their journalists and writers could be used by search engines and other third-party aggregators that reproduce their material online.

"With the ancillary copyright law, publishing houses now have a right that other intermediaries have long had," the Federation of German Newspaper Publishers said.

Members of the European Publishers Council, a lobbying group in Brussels which has been pushing for a fundamental change in the relationship between publishers and Google, also hailed the law as an important step toward recognizing "clearly in copyright law both the value and the cost of investment in professional journalistic content."

"The E.P.C. believes that this law will help establish a market for aggregator content," said Angela Mills Wade, the E.P.C.'s executive director. "New innovative business models can now be built based on legally licensed content."

But critics charge that by watering down the law, it not only fails to grant full legal clarity to either of the two sides, but opens the door to lengthy legal disputes over the exact definition of a snippet and how much text can be legally reproduced by the search engines without incurring charges.

"The Bundestag passed a law today that will make neither the publishers, nor the critics nor the general public happy," wrote the Süddeutsche Zeitung in an opinion piece about the law. "Who is helped by a law that does not have any winners, only both sides somehow lose."


This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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