German publishers in online copyright fight

Activists, bloggers and Google oppose a draft law that would charge licensing fees to link to copyrighted content.

A customer buys the German Der Spiegel magazine at a kiosk in Hamburg
Germans are voracious consumers of print media; reading on an iPad is comparatively rare [Reuters]

Step into a German cafe and you’ll likely find most of your fellow customers leafing through a newspaper or magazine. The consumption of printed media here borders on the voracious – and it’s comparatively rare to find your neighbour flicking through an iPad or squinting their way through a story rendered in eight-point-type on their smartphone.

But while the traditional press is relatively buoyant here, some of Germany’s biggest publishing firms are now pushing for a “neighbouring right” which could fundamentally alter how their content can be shared and accessed online.

Two successive draft amendments to the federal Copyright Law prepared by Germany’s coalition government are under consideration. The first draft, released in June, proposes wide-ranging restrictions on how individuals and organisations can link to copyrighted material if they are deemed to be using the content for “commercial purposes”. The major publishing houses say they should be able to charge a licence fee for the reproduction of their material on other sites – including the headline and opening sentences that are currently deemed to be in the public domain under copyright law.

We fear that such a regulation would slow down the development of the Internet because it creates additional costs and leads to inefficiencies.

– Google spokesperson

Internet freedom activists, search engine companies and bloggers were among those who led opposition to the proposals, and within weeks a second draft amendment was published by the German Ministry of Justice. While much narrower in its range, it maintains pressure on search engine providers and news aggregators by requiring that they pay a licence fee for any portion of material already published on a German website.

‘Slowing online development’

Internet search firm Google is one of the firms that would be required to pay a licence in order to list mere snippets of published content. Under the proposals Google would face a huge rise in costs to run its news service in Germany, which allows users to see news stories aggregated by subject. The company argues that a neighbouring right would have dire implications for internet freedoms.

“We fear that such a regulation would slow down the development of the internet because it creates additional costs and leads to inefficiencies,” a Google spokesman told Al Jazeera.

“The internet is a key component of Germany’s economic success. It is important that any legislation supports rather than hinders innovation on the internet, to encourage new jobs and economic growth.”

Google argues that it acts as an enabler, with its news service helping drive users to the very websites that hold the original copyrighted content. It says it registers about 100,000 clicks to news websites across the world every minute. But the major German publishers insist that licencing fees collected under a neighbouring right would safeguard their existing content while allowing them to make fresh investments in journalism.

The latest draft amendment proposes far less than what some German publishers sought from the beginning. Throughout the last three years that a neighbouring right has been under consideration in public hearings, the publishers have insisted that the use of its material for any commercial gain – both in the online and offline spheres – should be reflected with some recompense to them.

“The example that was given at the hearing was: a bank employee reads his morning newspaper online and sees something about the steel industry, and then advises his clients to invest in certain markets,” says Mathias Schindler of Wikimedia Deutschland, who has attended the hearings.

They see someone making money from the internet and they don’t have an idea themselves – so let’s get money from the search engines. Simple as that.

– Dr Till Kreutzer

“The publishers argued that the bank consultant was only able to advise his clients because of the journalistic work in the published article. So that means the publisher deserves a fair share of any money made from that scenario. This was the proposal from the start.”

Although German newspaper and magazine sales are holding up well in comparison with other European titles, publishers here are grappling with how to bring money in from the online side of their businesses. While newspapers such as the New York Times and the Times of London have erected paywalls in different guises, there is little appetite among German publishers to bill internet users directly for access to their sites. The Berliner Morgenpost keeps some of its content available only to print edition subscribers, but most of its site remains wide-open.

Money from search engines?

Digital rights experts say the publishers are seeing the search engine companies make huge amounts from online advertising and want to benefit from their profits because they lack a strategy to make money themselves.

“They see someone making money from the internet and they don’t have an idea themselves – so let’s get money from the search engines. Simple as that,” says Dr Till Kreutzer, a copyright expert at the Bureau for Information Law Expertise.

“There is a question on whether this could be justified in a free market. The market for journalistic content – both online and offline – is changing, so the press publishers need to find new business models. To say that we need something like a tax that is only gathered from the richest members of the media markets – in this case the search engines – is really queer.”

With federal elections just over a year away the publishers and their supporters in the federal government have little time left to push a neighbouring right amendment into law. Politicians in Berlin will go into summer recess before the vote in September 2013 and opponents of the neighbouring right are expected to challenge successive sets of proposals. The two sides appear to be at implacable odds in a case which could provide a lesson for legislators, businesses and internet freedom advocates in other countries.

“Right now, it seems everyone is unhappy with the second draft,” Schindler says.

“The publishers are unhappy because of the downsizing. The internet industry representatives are unhappy because of the uncertainty, the bloggers are unhappy. And since no-one anticipates any extra revenue coming out of this second version, the journalists are unhappy.

“From this point on, anything is possible, including sending the bill back or shelving it. I wouldn’t be surprised that as a result of lobbying and campaigning by different parties this bill ends up dead on arrival.”

Source: Al Jazeera