A Belgian court ruled Tuesday that Internet search engine Google Inc. violated Belgian copyright law when it published snippets and links to Belgian newspapers on its Web site without permission.
The court ordered Google to remove the material and pay a fine of €25,000 ($32,500) a day. A judge said the fine was retroactive from an initial September ruling, but lawyers said they weren’t sure and needed time to analyze the judgment. A court official later said the fine was retroactive and amounted to €3.45 million and counting.
The ruling represents an initial defeat in what could become a major issue for Google — beginning to define what it must do before using copyrighted material.
In September, Copiepresse — an association of Belgian French- and German-language publishers in Belgium — won a case against Google at the Belgian Court of First Instance, charging that by displaying its members’ copyrighted articles on its news-search engine without payment and permission, Google had broken Belgian law. Google appealed the ruling to the same court, saying it wasn’t aware of the first court hearing.
For example, in Belgium it’s quite likely after a preliminary negative ruling that Google will lose a copyright suit brought by Belgian newspapers. A ruling against Google could have EU-wide implications because of relatively consistent copyright laws and force Google into a negotiation to license content from newspapers. If that were to happen it would set an unhappy precedent for Google.
Google is going to appeal so it isn’t final. Microsoft and Yahoo! would be subject to the same ruling and potential final outcome.
The Belgian copyright suit is just one of many legal challenges facing Google (the new piracy claims are just the latest). But Google has gotten used to it.
I argued in the earlier post that the legal challenges Google faces are partially about its market power and the desire of some parties to use the judicial system to create better negotiating conditions for themselves.
Here’s the official Google statement regarding the expected ruling:
Google is disappointed with today’s judgment, which we will appeal. We believe that Google News is entirely legal. We only ever show the headlines and a few snippets of text and small thumbnail images. If people want to read the entire story they have to click through to the newspaper’s website. Search tools such as Google Web Search and Google News are of real benefit to publishers because they drive valuable traffic to their websites and connect them to a wider global audience.