German bill would charge for aggregation

The potential law would provide content creators with a portion of the profits search engines make by aggregating them

News aggregators and search engines in Germany will be required to pay publishers a fee for using their content—even snippets, those brief extracts that pop up in a search—if a bill before the Bundestag, the country’s legislative body, passes this Spring.

The bill (link is in German) would create a new type of copyright called Leistungsschutzrecht to protect news articles. Aggregators and search engines, like Google, would be required to pay for the right to use original content generated from newspapers and bloggers if they gain commercially from the use. Private, non-commercial use would not be affected.

The potential law would provide content creators “with a reasonable portion of profits enjoyed by search engines and (news aggregators) who use the services of the publishers,” Justice Minister Sabine Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger told Zeit Online after she introduced the bill.

Newspaper publishers, who increasingly have seen revenues dwindle as aggregator profits soar, have been lobbying for protection for years. Google and other news aggregators have been making billions of euros off the content created by others, they say. In the meantime, they are struggling for survival.

“The content is being used for commercial purposes, so they must pay,” said Anja Pasquay, a spokeswoman for the Federation of German Newspaper Publishers.

While the publishers say they do not want government subsidies (they already benefit from a reduced Value Added Tax), they do admit that they need help recouping years of declining revenues. Last year, a record number of journalists were laid off in Germany as papers struggle to stay afloat.

Chancellor Angela Merkel’s ruling conservative coalition introduced the bill last March at the request of the publishers. The Legal Affairs Committee is scheduled to hear testimony January 30. If it passes a committee vote, which would be at a later, not-yet scheduled time, then it comes to parliament before the current session ends in July.

Meanwhile publishers throughout Europe are watching the whole thing closely. Lobby groups from France, Italy, Portugal, and Switzerland have officially requested that their governments investigate similar protections. A spokesman for the Austrian newspaper publishers group said it, too, was keeping a close eye.

In December, newspaper publishers in the French-speaking part of Belgium quietly came to an agreement with Google after years of litigation. Neither side is divulging too many details, only that the Belgian French-language news publishers will “partner with Google to generate business opportunities regarding online content aimed at driving traffic and increasing user engagement and revenue on publisher sites. “ It is widely believed that Google has agreed to pay millions of euros to advertise in Belgian newspapers.

Copiepresse, a Belgian group defending newspapers’ copyrights, has argued that snippets generate revenue for the search engine and that publishers should be paid for the content — a similar argument to the one German publishers are making.

Google said on its European blog the company believes that “our services respect newspaper copyrights and it is important to note that we are not paying the Belgian publishers or authors to include their content in our services. From now on, Google and Belgian French-language publishers will partner on a broad range of business initiatives.”

Newspaper owners in other countries, like Ireland, have already established national licensing schemes for companies that copy or scan their articles. In the US, the Associated Press formed NewsRight, which tracks the unpaid online use of their articles and seeks to turn aggregators into licensed, paying customers.

How Germany’s proposed law would work is still undecided. Lawmakers have put forth several schemes, including one in which aggregators would put money in a pot, which would be divvied up at the end of the year. Those details still need to be negotiated.

The potential legislation does have its critics. Google, for one. The California-based company owns some 95 percent of the German search market and enjoys a near monopoly in both search and news aggregation in the country. The search giant launched a counter-offensive in November, erecting a website (German), “defend your net,” funding an opposition group called IGEL (which in German is a cute hedgehog) and posting videos on YouTube.

“Seeing search and aggregation as theft is absurd and false,” said Kay Oberbeck, a press spokesman for Google Deutschland. “Snippets are legal. Aggregators are no criminals.” The ancillary effect of the law would destroy search and find, a basic function of the Internet, he added.

Google’s website points out that it does not post any ads on its Google News site. Moreover, publishers benefit from the snippets because readers are directed to the newspapers’ websites, Oberbeck said. There are more than four billion clicks per month from Google searches to German newspapers, he said.

Not surprisingly, the press was largely skeptical of Google’s online lobbying. An editorial in Spiegel Online detailed instances where the company quoted studies out of the context to make its point.

Still, the proposed law has met great political resistance. Representatives from the Pirate Party, which fights against all online regulations, said they will fight against the measure. So will some members of left-leaning opposition parties, including the Social Democrats, the Greens, and the Linke. Even a smattering of members of the ruling conservative party, the Christian Democratic Union, has expressed doubts about the proposal, worrying that it may impede Internet freedom.

Still Pasquay, of the Federation of German Newspaper Publishers, and others remain confident the law will pass, but it may not be so simple. This is an election year, so in the end the vote will come down to this: Will politicians want to be seen as guilty of killing off the local press, as the publishers argue? Or, killing off Internet freedom?

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Alison Langley has more than 25 years experience in journalism as a reporter and editor. Her stories have appeared in a variety of publications, including The New York Times, The Guardian, The FT and The Independent. She currently lectures in journalism at Fachhochschule Wien and Webster University Vienna. Tags: , ,