Q&A On Google's Belgium News Agreements

This week, news emerged about an agreement between Google and two Belgian author groups that were suing it over copyright issues. Below, a short Q&A on what this means for Google. Highlights: The case goes on with three other groups taking part, but large damages seem unlikely. The new deal gives especially seems to give Google photo rights. Google says it is not doing an about-face on opt-out in Denmark. More about these an other issues covered below, based on a talk with Google spokesperson Jessica Powell. Plus, some bonus stats on how much traffic newspapers get from search engines.

Q. The case was originally filed against Google by Copiepresse. What are the other groups that joined and when did they come on?

A. In mid-October, Sofam, Scam, SAJ  and Assucopie all joined the case after Google posted the Belgian court ruling in late September.

Q. Who remains as part of the case?

A. Copiepresse, SAJ and Assucopie.

Q. Has Google paid any fines in the case so far?

A. Despite rumors, Google reiterated again today that it has not been asked to pay any fines.

Q. If Google loses the case, will it have to pay any damages?

A. Google says it hasn't been asked to pay any fines.

Q. What do the new agreements with the author groups Sofam and Scam allow?

A. Sofam represents Belgian photographers while SCAM covers mainly audio/video content. Exact uses are being worked out. As with the AP deal, Google highlighted this as providing new uses rather than a solution to the legal challenges over spidering and thumbnail image use. "It's a way for us to use their content in new ways beyond what copyright law currently allows us without the permission of the authors," said Powell said.

Q. Was there a financial aspect to the agreement?

A. Google's not commenting. Google is definitely paying the Associated Press to use some of its content, as the AP itself has reported. However, the exact terms, mechanisms or amounts have never been disclosed. Google wouldn't get into specifics on the financial details on the two Belgian deals other than to say these were deals that will allow the search engine to use the content in new ways.

Q. Is Google talking with the other parties to the suit?

A. Google said it won't comment on discussions but that it's always open to dialogue.

Q. Did Google reverse course and go opt-in for Google News Denmark?

A. Google says it chose to only launch in Sweden and Norway and that going forward it is not planning on an opt-in model in Denmark or elsewhere. The reason, says Powell, is that the company believes Google News complies with copyright law. "If publishers don't want their websites to appear in search engines, robots.txt enables them to automatically prevent their content from being indexed. And we even go beyond that: if a newspaper doesn't want to be a part of Google News, they only need to ask, and we remove them."

Between The Lines Time

The use of news images is one of the touchiest areas for Google to deal with, as I covered more in my Search Engines, Permissions & Moving Forward In Copyright Battles article.

The Sofam deal might help solve some of Google's legal issues in Belgium. The group represents the rights of nearly 4,000 photographers in Belgium, Google said. Google did NOT say how this might translate into usage at Google News. However, potentially this means Google can have photos in Google News even from publication that it had to remove from Google Belgium by court order. The Sofam deal might provide legal cover there. Of course, if those publications are the only source of certain photos -- and they block use through systems like robots.txt -- that would still keep the content out of Google. I'm also following up more on this particular issue.

The deals do not restore access for Google to list textual news stories it finds. That means it has to remain hopeful that the legal case will go its way, if it wants to prevent some type of negotiations with the publishers that have opted-out.

If the case goes against Google, it doesn't appear to be facing in major damages. If these were to be levied, that should have happened when it lost the first time. Instead, the publishers will remain out of Google, making Google News Belgium less useful than it would be. However, they also deny themselves traffic from Google. Possibly Google might negotiate a payment-based system to include them. Equally possible, it might also decide to hold its ground and focus attention on other countries, to see if it can wait the publishers out.

If the case goes for Google, then it regain content that will help enhance Google News Belgium, unless those publisher decide to specifically block spidering, which Google would almost certainly honor.

Overall, the action in Belgium -- as with Denmark -- underscore that in smaller markets, Google (and other search engines) may come under increasing pressure to negotiate deals to list material. The players are fewer and have more power concentrated among them. Whether these will be lucrative deals remains to be seen. In smaller markets, Google might decide it's simply not worth figuring out some type of financial arrangement -- especially for Google News which carries no ads, so generates no direct revenue. That might bring about more non-financial arrangements where the publishers cooperate for the benefit of getting traffic and also being dealt with personally by Google, rather than impersonally through automated permissions systems like robots.txt

Traffic To Search Engines

As an aside, I got a request from another reporter trying to understand how much traffic newspapers get from search engines. My response:

There's no specific answer to this. It will vary from paper to paper. Places like the New York Times will likely get a lot, because they specifically work to generate search traffic. Papers such as those suing Google in Belgium are getting probably nil, since they were removed by court order from Google.

In general, surveys have found sites getting anywhere from 8 to 13 percent of traffic from search engines. That might not sound like much, but often the first visit leads to repeat visits.

I also included two people on my response who I thought might have some better stats. Marshall Simmonds, chief search strategist for the New York Times Company, came back with this:

The one stat I can report is the NYT gets approximately 22% of its traffic from search engines. This number is very actively growing.

Bill Tancer, over at Hitwise, reported this:

Hitwise tracks 800,000 sites divided into 170 industry categories. One of those categories is our News & Media – Print category which covers Newspaper and Magazine websites (3,180 sites total). For the week ending 11/18/06 (based on our U.S. sample), Google was the #1 site sending traffic to the category at 13.66%, Search Engines as a whole were responsible for 22.44% of traffic for that same week.

That's a lot of traffic, however you slice it. There's no doubt things like Google News help build Google up as a company. But at the same time, Google News drives a ton of traffic to newspapers that are seeing the web as a new revenue source that might save them as print subscriptions dry up.