A few weeks ago, there was some half-amused excitement in web circles about a conflict between Google and Belgian newspaper publishers. The publishers had accused Google of violating their copyrights by linking to their content from Google News.
Google now actually lost the resulting case in a Brussels court. The company was ordered to remove all Belgian newspaper content from Google News and from its search cache, and in addition to that, Google has to pay a fine of 25,000 Euros per day, totalling several million Euros.
The last part shouldn't be that hard on the rich search engine giant, but understandably Google is a worried afraid that this court decision could set a precedence for similar lawsuits in the rest of Europe. Still, most Americans can hardly believe that a small country like Belgium dares to attack the king of Internet search, and that newspaper publishers would be so stupid to have their sites removed from Google.
In my opinion, this discussion is afflicted by two pretty fundamental misunderstandings:
- First of all, online advertising doesn't have the same importance in continental Europe as in the US or the UK. Therefore, its importance is not the same for newspaper publishers, and the Internet traffic coming from the large search engines is by no means as relevant as it is for an English-language newspaper website. American and British newspapers would be stupid to sue a search engine, since their increasingly important online revenues are largely driven by Google and its competitors. But that's not true for many European countries.
- The economic power of newspaper publishing companies is very different depending on the country's market situation. Google so far experienced most of its legal trouble in francophone countries where newspapers play a comparatively minor role in the national advertising markets. Belgian newspapers get about 23% of the total ad spending in their country, French newspapers only about 17%. That's a far cry from other countries where newspapers are much stronger, such as Switzerland (52% of ad spending for newspapers), Germany (43%) or Sweden (55%). In those countries, newspaper publishers feel a lot more relaxed about search engines, since they know that their strong national newspaper brands can only benefit from Google's traffic. But in the weak newspaper markets, a desperate economic situation seems to lead to desperate legal measures.
Since newspaper publishers of course have major political and social influence in their respective country, Google shouldn't be too optimistic about the outcome of possible further lawsuits of the same kind. But again, not all of Europe is the same. And Google still has time to approach newspaper publishers proactively to strike a deal that works for both sides.