What Google’s German battle over news copyright means for startups


Germany’s proposal to boost publishers’ copyright online would dramatically change the rules for Google – and potentially for some startups utilising aggregated information. Here’s what you need to know.

Google’s €60m settlement with publishers in France last week leaves Germany as the next big battleground for whether internet companies should pay to display parts of news articles from other sources in their search results.

It’s a proposal polarising opinions across Germany. Supporters on one side say it’d be “like breaking the architecture of the web” and make it impossible to use small snippets of text – even for straight linking – online in Germany.

The publishing lobby, meanwhile, has accused Google of trying to protect “monopolistic margins” and refusing to consider change of any kind. 

Meet Leistungsschutzrecht für Presseverleger

The cause of all the ruckus? A proposed change to Germany’s Copyright Act known officially as Leistungsschutzrecht für Presseverleger (Intellectual Property Right for Publishers) and to some of its critics as “the Google tax”.

The new bill would give publishers the right to charge those who profit by making their content publicly available. Here’s the crucial wording:

The manufacturer of a press product (Press Publisher) has the exclusive right to make the press product or parts thereof for commercial purposes available to the public (via Google Translate – here’s the full and original text).

Taking this to the obvious next step, Google would have to pay some kind of fee to reproduce headlines and snippets of articles in Google Search or Google News. Right now, it gets to do so for free.

Ralf BremerAnd so it should, Google spokesman in Berlin Ralf Bremer argues (pictured right). He points out that Google sends four billion clicks to publishers worldwide per month: “We are sending the traffic to the publishers’ websites,” he said. They are not read on Google. They are read on the publishers’ websites. There, they are doing their business, with the readers they get from us. We don’t understand why we should pay for this service…”

For Christoph Keese, a spokesman for newspaper publishers’ association BDVZ and powerful German publisher Axel Springer, this argument doesn’t cut it: “If I take your bicycle and return it a week later and tell you don’t worry, I’ve fixed the brakes – you should be happy because I fixed your brakes – you will not accept it,” he said. “You say, no, before you take my bicycle, ask me. I set the terms and conditions of our agreement, because it’s my bicycle. Same here.”


What stage is the copyright proposal at?

The bill had its first reading in the Bundestag, Germany’s parliament, last November. Parliamentary committees will now meet to discuss the bill and recommend changes before returning it for the second and third readings needed for it to pass into law.

The Committee for Legal Affairs met last week for the first public hearing on the bill. Keese, one of nine experts invited to speak at the hearing, told us he understands there will be one more hearing, before a different committee, later this month.

Unsurprisingly, Yahoo Germany has joined Google in opposing the bill – as has the Association of German Startups (including the Factory’s Simon Schaefer, eDarling’s David Khalil and Christian Vollmann, Team Europe’s Lukasz Gadowski and Tim Bartel, the former CEO of Wikimedia Germany).

But maybe more surprisingly, the youth organisations of five political parties, including the CDU and FDP, which introduced the bill as part of their coalition agreement, came together last November with a joint statement to oppose the bill.

Germany’s Max Planck Institute for Intellectual Property and Competition Law is also among critics, putting out an opinion in November to say the bill’s current wording is too vague and that there are already sufficient property rights for publishers in place.

Google News is affected – so what about Facebook, Twitter, Flipboard et al?

Who exactly will the bill catch? Google News is obvious – and probably also Google Search. The bill names commercial search engines and “commercial providers of such services”, including news aggregators. 

It excludes “other companies”, associations, law firms, bloggers and private internet users. Google Reader, as a private RSS feed and aggregator, is probably off the hook – interesting, as it sometimes caches entire articles that can be read away from publishers’ sites.

Christoph Keese

Keese (above) told us “almost everybody” at last week’s hearing agreed social networks weren’t a target. “Social networks don’t produce aggregated news summaries,” he pointed out. “They simply do not do this. Even if there are snippets in a few posts – this does in no way constitute any competition to a press publisher”.

This points to the deeper argument – publishers aren’t worried about snippets per se, they’re worried about aggregators using their content to position themselves as rival news sources. As Keese told TechCrunch, search indexing is “more than welcome” but “aggregators have gone far beyond that”.

What about other new media startups, from big guns such as Flipboard to smaller European sites such as Rivva, Virato and Scoopinion?

Kobra KoskinenScoopinion CEO Kobra Koskinen (right) is passionate about good journalism – his company provides tools for journalists and helps curate the best articles on the web – but isn’t convinced this is the best way to safeguard it: “I see that there’s a need to clarify the gray area of copyrights here, but I feel that imposing fees on text snippets are not the way to do it,” he said. “In online media, it is time to be smart instead of protective.”

It’s not clear if the new bill would affect Scoopinion – whether this is the kind of company that would also be considered an aggregator. 

Keese acknowledges some startups would probably be affected, but argues it would create new business models rather than destroy the old. “The whole rumour that this is going to kill small aggregators is nonsense,” he said. “We have on many, many occasions publicly said that we strongly believe in startups. We want to foster them, we want to foster aggregation. All we are not accepting is people just taking it for free.”

The bill doesn’t specify pricing or how fees would be collected but the “price we’re probably going to ask for is non-prohibitive,” he said.


Google – “the law will not come quickly”

Google’s Ralf Bremer doesn’t want to speculate on what Google would do if the bill passes – whether it would consider paying publishers or, more likely, simply cut them out of Google News. Does he think it’s likely the bill will pass into law?

“I really can’t say, but even more critics have been ramping up,” he said. “We really hope, and are somehow a bit confident, that at least the law will not come quickly, that there will be additional discussion.”

Featured image credit: news, by Flickr user Jan Krömer; Reichstag, by Flickr user Werner KunzGoogle, by Robert Scoble via Flickr 


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