Google has just threatened to stop linking to all French news sites, should the country pass a law forcing it to pay in order to link to news stories. The idea, put forward by French newspaper publishers, is that it’s unfair that Google should receive advertising revenue from searches for news.
On its face, this seems ridiculous. Google directed 4 billion clicks to French news sites last year, the company claims, a bonanza of traffic for an industry still struggling with the transition away from print.
And yet versions of this demand are increasingly common throughout the EU. In the UK, the Newspaper Licensing Association has ruled that businesses that make money “monitoring the press and forwarding links on a regular basis as part of an organised service” must pay a license fee to it, which it shares with newspapers. (It doesn’t seem to include aggregators, like Google News, as an “organised service”, though.) Germany has proposed a similar initiative.
And in a foretaste of what could happen in France, Google removed links to Belgian newspapers from all of its products in 2006, after a court ruled that it had to stop excerpting their material. In doing so it was following the letter of the court ruling, but the newspapers subsequently begged Google to be re-included in its general search results because the loss of traffic was too great.
In order to justify demands that Google pay to link to news stories, the European Court of Justice ruled in 2009 that single sentences, or even sentence fragments could be protected by copyright if they conveyed to a reader the essence of “the intellectual creation of the author of that article.” That is, the European Court of Justice ruled that facts and insights are themselves copyrightable. A similar ruling was made in the US in a case in which Wall Street ratings firms successfully sued a website for accurately reporting the results of their research. That ruling was subsequently thrown out.
In an age in which the patenting of software—essentially, the patenting of ideas—is increasingly viewed as antithetical to innovation, it seems strange that countries should be rushing to protect the smallest atomic unit of information, a fact. Perhaps the French would prefer a home-grown search engine that is more amenable to paying a license fee to support newspapers, like the one the UK government levies on televisions to support the BBC.