Google lashes out at German copyright ‘threat’

Google (s GOOG) has launched a broadside against a proposed law in Germany that would see search engines forced to pay license fees for linking people to news stories.

Well, actually that’s slightly inaccurate: the draft law would make search engines pay for reproducing newspapers’ headlines and first paragraphs. So, take those away and the links are fine. Even if nobody will have the faintest idea what they’re linking to.

Google’s North Europe communications chief, Kay Oberbeck, sounded off about the issue this morning in a guest post for a German press agency. That was in German, of course, so I got him to vent in English as well:

“Nobody sees a real reason why this should be implemented,” he said. “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.”

Oberbeck also pointed out the obvious: that Google send readers to the publishers’ sites. And that anyone who doesn’t want their content to be indexed by Google can just throw a robots.txt file in there. And that publishers make money off Adsense.

But wait, let’s back up. To appreciate the full absurdity of the situation, we should take in a little history.

The German publishing houses, particularly Axel Springer, are very powerful in their country, with relatively strong influence in government circles. As Matthias Spielkamp of the copyright news site iRights put it to me:

“If you look at the U.S., if print houses there want something, they are up against American companies like Google and Yahoo (s YHOO). Here we have local publishers that are enormously powerful and are trying to target U.S. companies. I wouldn’t say it’s anti-American – it’s just that German politicians are much more inclined to protect German publishers’ interests when balancing that with a [foreign] company or industry.”

A couple of years ago, a leaked draft showed what plans the publishing houses were pitching to their friends in the coalition government. The first official draft legislation showed up in April. What it proposed was breathtaking.

The government was calling for a form of ‘ancillary copyright’ to be brought in, that would force companies to pay publishers license fees for using their work in a commercial setting. As in, employers would have to pay up for letting their employees read the news online at work.

German industry bodies were predictably apoplectic, as were opposition parties, and the government beat a hasty retreat. The second draft, which appeared in the last couple of months, drastically narrowed the scope of the legislation, so that it would only apply to search engines.

So now Google is furious for being picked on, when it actually drives traffic to the publishers.

And the publishers aren’t happy either – Anja Pasquay, a spokeswoman for the Federal Association of German Newspaper Publishers (BDZV), told me that the second draft “won’t help”, and her organization would rather see a revival of the first draft.

So, with nobody happy, and with the government looking increasingly isolated, a third draft is rumoured to be in the works. That’s why Google is piping up now.

“An ancillary copyright would mean a massive damage to the German economy. It’s a threat to the freedom of information. And it would leave Germany behind internationally as a place for business,” Oberbeck told me.

“Publishers should be innovate in order to be successful. A compulsory levy for commercial internet users means cross-subsidizing publishers through other industries. This is not a sustainable solution.”

On balance, it’s difficult not to take Google’s side on this one. The whole idea of this kind of ancillary copyright is ridiculous, and it puts the likes of Axel Springer in a very poor light indeed.

It’s not as though Axel Springer isn’t plunging headfirst into the web industry itself – only today, it announced the purchase of an online news and classified portal.

The German publishing giants are big enough to compete in the real world. Sure, it’s tough monetizing free web content. But cooking up hokey and self-defeating new copyright laws is a pretty shabby way to go about it.