Soon, I will start writing my master’s thesis for my program. It will look into how freedom of expression and intellectual property have shaped the evolving and expanding roles of Internet intermediaries such as social media, blogs and news aggregators in online newspapers.
Among others, my paper will discuss to what degree online newspapers need intellectual property protection to give them incentive to gather news and to what degree Internet intermediaries can depend on freedom of expression to get free content from the newspapers.
Finding a balance between the two competing interests, I must admit, is turning to be real challenge. The newspaper industry, for one, is plagued by difficulties such as declining advertisements and readership and increasing competition for readers’ attention from Internet intermediaries.
While preparing the list of case laws for my topic, I came across an interesting case involving Belgian newspapers and the search giant Google over the latter’s operation of its news service that is known to many as Google News. The newspapers, French and German language dailies, are represented by Copiepresse, a management company or rights or commonly referred to as collecting society.
It’s a long-standing skirmish that dates back to 2006 after Google introduced the Google News service, called Google.Actualites, in Belgium.
Google News is a search engine for press articles that are published on the Internet. Behind this search engine is software of robots called “googlebots” which according to Google works by “trawling through websites moving through page after page, at regular intervals and in an entirely automatic way.”
Under this service, at least the search engine is able to “memorize” the title of the article, the text of the first few lines of the article, the address of the page available in hyperlink and sometimes pictures accompanying the article.
In 2007, the Court of First Instance in Brussels ruled that the news service of Google was in violation of the Belgian copyright law. The decision ordered Google to remove from its site links to the articles and photographs of Copiepresse newspapers.
The court dismissed Google’s arguments of legal exceptions for citation and reporting of news. In almost all copyright laws around the world, news, as such, is exempted from copyright protection. What is protected under copyright is the “expression” of news or the way the reporter has “expressed” or has “written” the article, including the way the article is presented on paper or on the computer screen (lay-out).
In addition, most copyright laws do not prohibit a third-party from reproducing parts of the news, provided that there is an attribution and most important if this is to support the reporting of news events.
“It does not appear that the editing of articles carried out by Google.News may be defined as a press review…Google.News does not carry out any analysis, comparison or critique of these articles, which are not commented on in any way,” read part of the Court of First Instance decision.
This, as the reproduction of parts of news articles is not done by an editor but by a computer.
This ruling was later upheld by the Court of Appeal of Brussels (9th Chamber), in a decision that came out in May last year.
At the end, however, pending a final agreement on the Google News case, Google has restored in July last year the Copiepresse newspapers in its search service after it got the permission from the collecting society. Some reports tell that the removal of the newspapers in Google search did not favor economically the newspaper.
This only tells us how Internet intermediaries such as Google can have perplexing impact on traditional media like the old newspapers.
Maricel is currently attending an LL.M. Program in Intellectual Property and Competition Law at the Munich Intellectual Property Law Center — our direct connection to Europe’s technology scene, and an international point of view of the Intellectual Property Law. You can reach her by e-mail at email@example.com