Google Loses Belgium Copyright Case–Google v. Copiepresse

By Eric Goldman

Google v. Copiepresse, No. 06/10.928/C (Tribunal de premiere instance de Bruxelles) (decision in French) (English translation)

Google has lost (again) the Copiepresse copyright case in Belgium over Google News. In September 2006, the court initially ruled against Google, but Google didn’t make an appearance in the case. So Google asked for and got a rehearing, but even after Google had a full opportunity to advocate its position, the result was the same: a loss for Google.

I don’t know Belgian copyright law, so it’s hard for me to judge the legitimacy of this ruling under that law. Plus, Google has said it will appeal the case, so it’s possible this court got it wrong. However, I can make 2 general observations about this situation:

1) As I’ve said before, I think Google treads a lot closer to copyright’s boundaries than it publicly admits. Naturally, in public, it takes the advocacy position that its offerings are clearly within copyright law, but this is hard to distinguish from cheap rhetoric. Instead, I think it’s fair to say that Google pushes the edge with a lot of its services. Therefore, it should not be surprising that, given enough data points, some judges will conclude that Google has gone too far. Thus, we can string together this case and the Perfect 10 decision from a year ago and show that at least 2 judges have voted that Google crossed the line. Even if both cases are reversed on appeal, I don’t think that would change my point: the fact that 2 trial courts have ruled against Google shows that they tread much closer to copyright’s border than they portray.

2) It may be that Google News is illegitimate in all countries. I’m not sure it’s infringing in the US, but this hasn’t been resolved (AFP v. Google is still pending). However, assuming that Europe’s IP laws are different than US laws in ways that matter, Google will likely have to (a) revamp Google News worldwide to satisfy the lowest common denominator, or (b) customize Google News on a country-by-country basis to reflect local rules. This isn’t a new phenomenon–we ran into this issue in the Yahoo Nazi memorabilia case–but this case does remind us that product localization remains important even on the “borderless” Internet.

Sources:

Danny Sullivan. He has a more optimistic view about this case than I do.

Associated Press.

Google’s official announcement.

UPDATE: Mike Madison argues that, based on this case, he’s more concerned about the future of journalists than about Google’s future.

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