A Belgian court today ruled that Google violated the copyright of Belgian newspaper publishers when it posted extracts from their stories on its Google News website.
The judgment upholds an earlier decision from the Court of First Instance in Brussels, which required Google to remove the content from Belgium's French- and German-language newspapers from its site. It could open the door to further lawsuits and limit the ability of search engines in Europe to display copyright material on their websites.
The Belgian newspapers, represented by the trade group Copiepresse, had argued that Google profited unfairly by posting short extracts of their stories on its websites. Google appealed the initial judgment and the result of that appeal was announced today.
"Google cannot claim to be an exception under copyright law," the court said in its decision.
Margaret Boribon, Copiepresse's secretary general, called the ruling "a very good result for us" and said it largely upholds the court's original findings in September.
Google said it was disappointed with the decision and that it planned to file a further appeal. "We believe that Google News is entirely legal," the company said. It reiterated its argument that it posts only a short snippet of newspaper stories on its website and that users must click through to a newspaper's website to read the full story.
Google's lawyers were studying the judgment on Tuesday morning and were not ready to comment in detail, said Google spokeswoman Jessica Powell.
The court did not affirm every part of the earlier ruling, which was issued in September. It significantly reduced the daily fines that Google was required to pay for not removing the newspapers' content, from €1.5m per day to €25,000 per day.
Still, Tuesday's decision is a blow to Google and possibly to other search engines in Europe. Copiepresse had also complained to Microsoft's MSN division and to Yahoo about their use of its members' content, although so far it has brought legal action only against Google.
Copiepresse will now go back to MSN and Yahoo and apply renewed pressure on them to remove all of its members content, Boribon said.
Microsoft said today that it would provisionally remove all links to the Belgian newspaper content from its websites rather than become embroiled in a legal dispute. "Microsoft however underlines that these measures do not imply any acknowledgement or recognition of Copiepresse's rights and that it reserves all rights," the company said.
While some newspapers clamber over each another to be in Google News, others see it as a threat to their business because users can bypass their home pages to find stories, and possibly avoid visiting their sites altogether. Copiepresse wants Google to pay a share of its advertising revenue to its members in return for using their content, Boribon said.
Google responds that it helps publishers to reach a wider audience and drives traffic to their sites because users must click through to the newspapers' websites to read the full stories. It has called the Belgian case an important one because it "goes to the heart of how search engines work".
The company has also had to delay its launch of Google News in Denmark after newspapers there demanded a system that would allow them to "opt in" to Google's service, rather than having their content trawled automatically. And a Norwegian media group has objected to the way that Google reuses their news photographs.
A spokesman for the European Commission on Tuesday suggested that the Commission may take a closer look at copyright law in Europe as a result of the Google ruling.
"Its something we are following with great interest but we have no specific comment at this time," said Oliver Drewes, the Commission's spokesman on copyright-related matters.