German Publishers Bow To Google’s Market Power In Ongoing Text Snippets Fight

A tug of war between Google and German publishers over how online news content is displayed in search results has ended in surrender (for now) for the publishers — who have grudgingly agreed the search giant can display snippets of their content without paying them for the privilege of doing so.

The backstory here is that the German publishing industry lobbied for a copyright law extension at the start of last year to cover so-called news snippets — as they were unhappy that Google’s business was benefiting from free use of their content.

That ancillary copyright law, catchily known as ‘Leistungsschutzrecht für Presseverleger‘ in German, ended up being watered down to excuse Google from a requirement to pay for using snippets.

But a consortium of more than 200 German digital publishers including Germany’s Axel Springer, using the name VG Media, sued Google this summer, arguing the law still allowed scope for payment for snippets.

Google’s response, earlier this month, to the legal action was to stop displaying news snippets and images in search results for the German publishers involved in the legal action, with only a link and a headline remaining. That penalizing move appears to have applied enough pressure to force the publishers to back down — and offer what they term revocable ‘free consent’ for Google to use their snippets.

In a press release VG Media said the publishers it represents are being forced to take this step because of the ‘overwhelming market power of Google’. Mountain View commands a more than 90 per cent marketshare of search in Europe.

When the ancillary copyright law came into force in Germany in summer 2013 several major German publishers initially opted not to pull their snippets from Google, presumably fearing the impact of doing so on their traffic — given that other publishers’ snippets would inevitably become more visible in search results.

For all the unhappiness directed at Google by German publishers who accuse the company of financially benefiting from freely reusing their content to power its News search service, publishers have found it remarkably difficult to wean themselves off of Google and go it alone without the traffic that being made visible by Google inevitably generates.

The VG Media group said that lost revenues caused by a fall in traffic as a result of Google not using their snippets could trigger bankruptcies. Hence it now bowing to Google’s dominant marketshare.

However the group appears to be continuing to hope its civil action against Google will yield fruit next year, when the German Patent and Trademark office will consider the scope and applicability of the ancillary copyright law.  So while Google has won this snippets skirmish for now, a wider war with the publishers will roll on into 2015.