By Andrew Goldberg
Google is prohibited from publishing snippets of, or even linking to, articles and photos from Belgian newspaper websites, a Belgian appeals court ruled this week.
The decision, which upholds a lower court’s 2007 copyright ruling forcing Google to remove all content and links from French-and-German-language newspapers in Belgium, is surely a setback for the search giant, but is also potentially an even bigger blow to innovation in Europe.
“We believe that referencing information with short headlines and direct links to the source -- as it is practiced by search engines, Google News and just about everyone on the web -- is not only legal but also encourages web users to read newspapers online," Google told Bloomberg in a statement following the ruling.
The court's decision could impact Google's ability to introduce other news initiatives. More than a year before Google announced One Pass in the U.S., -- its forthcoming effort to help publishers sell digital subscriptions -- it unofficially unveiled Fast Flip, an experimental future news service designed to revolutionize the way readers browse their favorite publications on the web.
Launched in September 2009 and still accessible only through Google Labs, Fast Flip is billed as a way to make browsing newspapers online feel more like perusing the morning paper at the kitchen table. At Google’s digital newsstand, where the articles on display are actually screenshots taken from the websites of more than 100 participating newspapers and magazines, readers can quickly flip through the pages of their favorite publications, which are arranged according to popularity and topic. (Google apparently has no current plans to expand its slate of Fast Flip sources.)
The strategy is that by making the news faster and more appealing to read online, Google will gain eyeballs and ad dollars, both for its own site and those of its media partners. Indeed, any revenue generated from ads placed alongside articles on Fast Flip is shared between Google and its publishing partners, with the publisher receiving the majority of the revenue, according to the search giant.
But if the latest ruling from the Brussels Court of Appeal is any indication, inventive news initiatives along the lines of Fast Flip face a far more uncertain future in the European Union.
While fast, free, fun, and convenient for consumers, Fast Flip presents a closer call for even some publishers in the United States torn between tight control of their content and making money. Unlike Google News, which only displays the headline and a few lines of text from any article pulled from and linking back to a publication’s website, Fast Flip streamlines the process: Readers can zoom into specific articles and sections, view full-sized photographs, and read multiple paragraphs, often taken from the heart of news stories, all without necessarily even leaving Google’s webpage.
Still, to avoid a fight over Fair Use and any potential copyright problems, Fast Flip does not scrape content from publishers’ websites. Instead, it only uses the content that publishers permit. “We have licensing agreements with each of the publishers whose work we display in Fast Flip,” said a Google spokesperson. “We only feature the content that publishers feed to us."
Barring a successful appeal by Google to the Cour de Cassation, Belgium's highest court, copyright law will continue to stand in the way of innovation in the EuropeanUnion, digital rights advocates warn. Indeed, in Belgium, where newspapers are still fighting Google News -- a service unveiled in the U.S. more than nine years ago -- publishers are sure to say "Not So Fast" to Fast Flip and other services that may well be the print industry's best hope for remaining relevant.