Google, 2 news groups settle copyright suit in Belgium

November 25, 2006|By Bloomberg News

BRUSSELS, Belgium -- Google Inc., the world's most-used Internet search engine, reached a settlement with Belgian photographers and journalists yesterday in a copyright dispute over how the company's news service links to newspaper content.

The agreement removes two of five groups from a Brussels lawsuit that seeks to prevent Google from linking to Belgian newspaper articles for free.

Google spokeswoman Jessica Powell declined to give the terms of the agreements with copyright agencies Sofam, which represents 3,700 photographers, and Scam, which represents journalists.

The settlements may show that Google is willing to resolve disputes with content providers trying to prevent the company from linking to Web sites without compensation.

Book publishers and authors in the United States also are challenging Google's plan to scan copyrighted books and make them searchable online.

"It's going to be more expensive for Google to do its work if all these people want license fees for linking to their content," said Laura Martin, a Soleil Securities Group Inc. analyst. "The legal precedent has already been set."

Martin, based in New York, said the settlement shows that Google faces costly hurdles in linking to European media. She rates Google shares "neutral" and doesn't own any.

The Belgian suit, filed by a group of 17 French and German newspapers, proceeded yesterday in Brussels at a hearing with the remaining plaintiffs. Powell declined to say whether Google is considering similar accords with the newspapers.

"We reached an agreement with Sofam and Scam that will help us make extensive use of their content," Powell said in a phone interview yesterday.

This could have a "huge impact" on how Google is approaching content providers and could even "have an impact on their business model," said Stijn Debaene, a lawyer at Allen & Overy in Brussels.

Marie Gybels, the director of Sofam, didn't immediately comment when reached by telephone.

After the introduction of Google News this year, Copiepresse, which represents the newspapers, sued to force the company to seek permission for using headlines and other text as links to articles. Google removed the links from its site after a Belgian court ruled in the newspapers' favor.

Google argues that using headlines and text fragments with links to newspaper Web sites on Google News is legal.

"Google News never shows more than the headlines, a few snippets of text and small thumbnail images," Powell said in an e-mailed statement. "If people want to read the entire story, they have to click through to the newspaper's Web site."

The company has a similar case with Agence France-Presse, which protested Google's linking to the news agency's articles and pictures in the U.S. and in France last year.

The Copiepresse action is part of the global issue of the extent to which copyright protections apply to Web sites. The Belgian group's warning in October led Microsoft Corp. to remove newspaper links from its Belgian site.

Microsoft said that it didn't wish "to enter into a legal debate with Copiepresse at this point," adding that "these measures do not imply any acknowledgement or recognition of Copiepresse's rights and that it reserves all rights."

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