news content – free
Photo courtesy of NiemanLab.org

In what could turn out to be a landmark court case, powerful German news media organisations have banded together to confront Google over the internet giant’s use of their news content – free. 

Germany’s biggest newspaper publisher, Axel Springer, and the 40 other publishers which support the action, say Google should cough up for displaying parts of their newspaper articles online.

The German journalists are not just irate with Google, they’re saying anyone and everyone should pay them for using their content, clearly not buying into the established internet culture, in which almost everyone wants everything free of charge.

The current situation is that Google, Facebook and other similar companies act as news aggregators, bringing together headlines and excerpts from news media around the world.

Google’s news aggregation service is the most well known and is located at news.google.com, and according to some surveys, most people in the world get their news online from Google.

It’s not the first time cranky old journalists have moaned about Google’s cannibalising of the news media. News International boss Rupert Murdoch was probably the first high-profile media proprietor to warn of Google’s possible effect on traditional sources of news – and that was about 10 years ago.

And the Germans are not the only ones grumbling about aggregators – in 2014, temperamental Spanish hacks pressured their government to pass laws which will allow them to get money from aggregators which display their content in, for example, search.

But news publishers find themselves in a catch-22 situation: while they might not like their content being published by other people who had nothing to do with producing it – which is essentially what aggregators do – they don’t want to miss out on the vast amounts of traffic that the big aggregators like Google and Facebook can send them through hyperlinks back to their websites.

This is an argument that has been rumbling on for some years and has once again led to a court battle, this time in Berlin, where the judge has referred the German journalists’ requests for beer money from aggregators to the European Court of Justice.

The European Court of Justice will now see whether a German media law dealing with copyright issues is in line with European principles.

As reported in Fortune.com, Judge Peter Scholz said in his ruling: “We think that the complaint is at least partially justified.”

Google earned £17 billion from online advertising in one quarter in 2015, according to the top result instantly returned through its own search engine. It’s not clear how much of that is down to news, but it’s a well-known fact that news junkies with high disposable incomes tend to be more lucrative targets for advertisers.

It’s also a well-known fact that printed newspapers have struggled for many years and advertising revenues have decreased.

While printed newspapers were always going to struggle against instant online news, the websites associated with those printed newspapers are highly likely to benefit from rules preventing any and every copyright infringement.

Apple News – an app included in iOS – is also a news aggregation service, but unlike the others, it enables publishers to earn money, though the amounts can be infinitesimally small.

So it seems fair that Google, Facebook and other spectacularly successful internet companies should be asked to pay for appropriating original news content that they played no part in producing – or stop using it and see how it goes when all that’s left to publish is free press releases and other marketing material.

It seems a no-brainer really, and the current lax copyright laws are probably the real reason for the information overload and attention scarcity many people talk about.

And it doesn’t seem fair to say that, well, the news organisations actually want to be included in Google News and other aggregators’ services and are only too happy to have the opportunity to attract the traffic they can send.

Certainly Google and Facebook have helped many media organisations in many ways, but if the main and possibly only product your company produces – news, or “data”, if you prefer – is being plundered by anyone and everyone without your permission and there is no legal protection for you, what else are you going to do except make the best of a bad situation and do some damage limitation or something?

There’s probably no other business sector where one company can just take bits of valuable data or information from another company without at least offering something in return. But that’s what seems to be situation in the news media.

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