German Publisher Group Sues Google Again Under Draconian Copyright Law


A group of German publishers has filed a civil complaint against Google. The group, constituted as VG Media, claims to be enforcing Germany’s “Ancillary Copyright” Law, passed in 2013. This is the latest episode in an ongoing dispute between German news publishers and Google.

Essentially, the publishers are suing to get Google to pay them for showing their content in search results. Yet it’s not entirely clear whether the complaint addresses search broadly or just Google News. My suspicion is the former, although I have not seen the complaint.

Google has not seen the complaint itself and so declined to comment on the suit or claims presented.

Apparently, this is the fifth civil or administrative claim filed by VG Media against Google in Germany. Three of those claims have been resolved in Google’s favor, and two others, including the newest case, are pending. As implied by the number of claims filed, there’s quite a tortured history here. I’ll do my best to summarize briefly.

In 2013, a number of German publishers, including Axel Springer, successfully lobbied for the passage of the very restrictive copyright law. Intended to limit the amount of publisher content that could be shown by third parties (e.g., search engines), it was to enable publishers to collect licensing fees from Google and others when exposure of their content exceeded certain narrow (though ambiguous) limits.

The law was an attempt by the German government and the publishers to address the economic challenge of declining readership and ad revenues of traditional print media. Many publishers blame Google for the decline of their businesses.

Several other countries in Europe followed Germany’s lead, (e.g., Spain) with similarly restrictive copyright rules. In most cases, however, the results have been disastrous for local publishers.

After the passage of the law in Germany and a period of wrangling and negotiation with publishers, Google decided to avoid potential liability by removing publisher content snippets and limiting news content to headlines in search results, in apparent compliance with the law. As a result, German publishers said they lost significant traffic and asked for the return of their “snippets” without a demand for licensing fees.

It’s unclear what damages the publishers are seeking in the new civil complaint. However, in the past, they have sought to capture an 11-percent share of Google’s gross revenues they argue come “directly and indirectly from making excerpts from online newspapers and magazines public.”

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