Did Google pay Belgian newspapers a $6M copyright fee? Sure looks like it

Europeans have been trying for years to force Google(s goog) to prop up the continent’s’ struggling news publishers. A new deal in Belgium suggests they have finally succeeded.

In a blog post on Wednesday, Google said it has resolved a long-running dispute with Belgian newspapers that have demanded copyright fees every time Google displays a link or excerpts to one of their stories. Google’s announcement says the parties are “collaborating” to make money but also takes pains to note that “we are not paying the Belgian publishers or authors to include their content in our services”. Oh, really?

US press outlets have noted Google is paying all the legal fees but have generally framed the deal as a tie or a win for Google. The Europeans, however, have been less gracious. Le Monde‘s triumphant account begins by explaining that the Belgian papers “forced Google to bend” and that Google will “compensate” papers and journalists to the tune of “2 to 3 percent of sales” — or “around 5 million euros” ($6.5 million).

So what exactly happened? Did Google pay up or not? The solution to the mystery lies in a part of the blog post where Google explains the ways it will work with the papers, including: “Google will advertise its services on the publishers’ media.” In other words, the American search giant appears to have bought millions of dollars of advertising in the hopes of staving off a direct copyright levy. The company did not immediately reply to a request for comment.

On its face, this is not a bad deal for Google. Given the anti-American regulatory climate in Europe, the company had a weak hand to play. Paying $6 millon to end the Belgian headache may be a good investment, especially as the company can still claim (technically at least) that it still does not pay copyright fees for newspaper excerpts.

The danger, of course, is that the rest of Europe will soon be beating a path to Google’s door demanding similar payouts. As we’ve noted, France and Germany are already kicking up dust over the copyright issue too (so is Brazil). The Le Monde story will only embolden them.

In the bigger picture, European news publishers would be better served by dropping the half-baked copyright claims (Google’s fair use case for excerpts is strong) and getting on with the painful process of digitization. The continent has wonderful newspapers but the ongoing prevalence of print is astounding compared to North America.

(Image by Sergey Mironov via Shutterstock)