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German Bill Seeks Licensing Fee from Google, Other Search Engines

The bill wants the search engines to pay for utilizing copyrighted material because they reproduce headlines and paragraphs of news stories.

Germany is considering a copyright bill that would force search engines to pay licensing fees for reproducing newspapers' headlines and the first paragraphs of articles, a measure that has Google up in arms.

According to the draft law, search engines would be utilizing copyrighted material by reproducing headlines and paragraphs of news stories, so they would have to pay fees accordingly.

[Related: 10 Terrible Tech Laws that Have You in Their Bull's-Eye]

"Nobody sees a real reason why this should be implemented," Kay Oberbeck, Google's North Europe communications chief, told GigaOM. "It's really harmful, not just for users who wouldn't find as much information as they find now, but such a law is also not justified for economic reasons or judicial reasons."

Oberbecks argument has some validity to it. Google and other search engines' ability to reproduce headlines in order to link readers to the corresponding news sites plays a role in driving traffic to those sites. And, of course, more traffic means more ad-clicks, which is how most websites make money.

And Oberbeck pointed out that anyone who doesn't want their site indexed by Google can opt out of the service.

This version of the bill is a second draft; the first draft wanted to introduce a form of "ancillary copyright" that would have required companies to pay licensing fees for any published work used in a commercial setting. In other words, employers would have had to pay a licensing fee for any published works (e.g. online news, etc.) consumed at their work place.

That was naturally met with resistance (from everyone but publishers), and so the proposed law was narrowed to include only search engines.

Though such a law may seem absurd and unsustainable to the average person -- after all, how will publishers generate as much money as possible if Googles stop linking to a site -- Google has actually come up against similar barriers in both France and Belgium. In 2007, Google signed a licensing agreement with the French wire service Agence France-Presse, which allowed the search engine to use the French news service's material in Google News. Prior to this licensing agreement, the AFP sued Google in both France and the United States for using its content.

Just because it's been an issue in the past doesn't mean it's sustainable, though. Google lost a copyright lawsuit in Belgium in 2011, and was required to remove all articles and photos from all Belgian newspapers in French and German (under threat of a daily fine). However, it's hard to imagine that those newspapers are doing as well as their more tech-savvy counterparts.

That said, the proposed German law looks like publishers are taking a different tactic. It doesn't appear that German publishers necessarily want to be unfindable on the Internet -- rather, it looks like they want a larger piece of the advertising-money-pie. Google makes a lot of money off advertisements by linking to various news sources' material, and publishers have been seeing their revenues shrink as the Web has taken over.

But it doesn't seem like creating absurd copyright laws are really the answer. Like the music and movie industries, perhaps the German publishing industry just needs to embrace the freedom of the Internet -- not hinder it.

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