Lex Google: Germany Waters Down Search Engine Legislation

Last-minute changes to a planned German law on search engines mean that Google will not be subjected to fees from newspaper publishers for its current indexing practices. Zoom
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Last-minute changes to a planned German law on search engines mean that Google will not be subjected to fees from newspaper publishers for its current indexing practices.

A new law regulating the indexing of media articles by search engines like Google and Bing is likely to pass on Friday. The watered-down legislation won't force the kind of payments to publishers the Internet giant had feared.

Google this week ducked a European legislative bullet after lawmakers in Germany reached a compromise to water-down the language of a law that had been described by many as a draconian "Lex Google". When Germany's new "Leistungschutzrecht" ancillary copyright law is sent to parliament for approval on Friday, where it is likely to pass, Google will have one reason less to fear the future.

Under a compromise reached between legislators on Tuesday and approved in parliament's Legal Committee one day later, Google will still be permitted to use "snippets" of content from publisher's web sites in its search results. Publishers had pushed to force the Internet giant to pay a licensing fee even for the snippets of content used to display search results.

Google controls a massive share of the market for online advertising in Germany, and publishers claim the company benefits disproportionately from indexing and displaying "snippets" from articles on their websites before linking back to them.

Publisher lobby groups claimed that Google, with services like Google News, is competing directly against newspapers and magazines. The company itself countered that the push for a licensing provision threatened its own freedom of speech. The company even took out full-page ads in German newspapers to campaign against the law. Executives at the world's largest search engine had feared the German law would cut deep into the company's bottom line.

In Belgium and France, publishers had brought similar copyright claims against Google for the snippets it uses in aggragating and displaying search results on stories published on media websites. Earlier in February, Google settled the dispute with French publishers by announcing a €60 million fund to support publishers' digital initiatives in the country. In December, Google settled a similar dispute with Belgian publishers.

On Tuesday, members of the Bundestag's Legal Committee with Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU) party and its junior coalition partner, the business-friendly Free Democratic Party, agreed to revised language in the bill that would ensure that such "snippets" remained free for Google to use in the future. It would still require a license for use of any content beyond "snippet" length.

Publishers 'Shoot Themselves in Foot'

The original plan to require Google and its services like Google News, as well as other Internet companies, to obtain licenses from publishers had been sharply criticized.

Writing in SPIEGEL ONLINE this week, German net activist Sascha Lobo claimed that publishers were effectively shooting themselves in the foot with their efforts to charge Google to index stories. The "real tragedy" Lobo writes, is that "many publishers would be abandoning the business model of web journalism." If it passed in its original form, he warned, "Journalism financed by the Leistungsschutzrecht would be a legal guarantee that journalism would become dependent on Google -- a nightmare scenario."

The law, which had been one of the most contentious Internet issues addressed by Merkel's government, will still require the company to obtain licenses for use of content that goes beyond so-called "snippets," which are compared in the revised law to thumbnail photos. Although the legislation is now less likely to impact Google, it could still require those offering other services and apps that create customizable news offerings to obtain licenses if their use goes beyond what is considered to be a snippet.

'Legal Certainty'

In the text explaining the changes made to the law, obtained by SPIEGEL ONLINE on Tuesday, the legislators note that the "recommendation should confirm that search engines and aggregators may provide short descriptions of search results without violating the rights of the copyright holder." It added: "Search machines and aggregators must have the possibility to describe the search results they are linking to."

Manuel Höferlin, a member of the FDP on the Legal Committee considering the issue, spoke out in support of the change. "The compromise can be implemented technically and provides search engines with legal certainty." He added that all parties had an interest in permitting short descriptive texts. Höferlin added that a limit on the length of snippets would ensure that users would know what to expect when they clicked on a link while at the same time ensuring that visiting that article would not be made superfluous by the description.

What the new draft does not stipulate, however, is the precise definition of the length permitted. Instead, the draft refers to legal precedents set for thumbnail photos used by search engines. Germany's high administrative court recently ruled that search engines are permitted to use thumbnails of images on media websites and that the practice doesn't constitute copyright violation.

dsl -- with wires

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