Commentary

Google Vs Publishers -- It's A Copyright Puzzle

Google versus publishers' copyright. The fight is back on, and I just don't get it. Do you?

I think most people are open to a debate about Google misusing its dominant position in search and digital advertising. I know I certainly am. But the opposition from publishers protecting their content from being picked up by Google's main search page, and its news section, is just baffling.

The issue is top of the agenda today after the French copyright authorities decided enough was enough. After a legal wrangle that had been going on for several months, a decision has been given. Google will now have to negotiate licences with individual publishers to have the right to include their headlines and a snippet from a story.

The argument is that the search giant takes this content without asking and so breaks Europe's newly unified and reinforced copyright law. The remedy is for Google to pay to use these fragments of stories.

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The only problem with this, of course, is that it's complete nonsense. Nobody can deny Google makes billions around the world from people searching for information on a topic by serving up paid-for links above the organic results that are often links to newspaper or magazine stories. 

But that's how it works, isn't it? A publisher gives up a headline and a line of text, probably a picture too, to stand the chance of attracting a new reader.

Google doesn't charge someone for reading the line of text, and there's no charge to the publisher for a click on an organic search result link. It's a quid pro quo. Google takes a couple of lines of content from several publishers and runs advertising at the top of the page. The publisher has its fingers crossed that the arrangement will lead to extra traffic which it will -- just like Google -- seek to monetise.

OK -- so Google doesn't ask. But to be honest, it doesn't have to. I've never written an article where the intention was not to rank well on Google by using relevant keywords a potential reader may be searching with to find an answer to a query. Publishers want extra traffic, they actively seek it out by making their articles as search-friendly as possible. 

When Spanish publishers kicked up a fuss about copyright, Google dropped the News section from its Spanish service. Guess what happened next? The publishers saw less traffic and decided they could get over their copyright concerns in return for restoration of the Google traffic pipeline. 

I cannot help but think this will be repeated in France. Google has already hinted at its opposition to paying licensing fees for snippets of content from publishers. It is unlikely to want to set a precedent that other EU markets will seize upon.

So, the next logical step that is Google closes the News section in France and then waits to see if there's a reaction from affected publishers. In organic search on the main page, maybe there will be just headlines and no snippet of text? We'll have to wait and see.

It may sound an obvious point. But if publishers feel that strongly about their copyright, they are free to block their site from appearing in search. They are free to insist on a "no follow" link being used when someone shares a story so there's no chance of Google realising they are a popular company producing authoritative content. 

The don't do this because they want the traffic. It's the way the deal works -- and it's likely to be proven by this case in France if Google turns the traffic taps off. 

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