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Snippet strife

Rayna Breuer / bkNovember 29, 2012

Text excerpts on the Internet are currently causing an uproar in Germany. Who is allowed to link to which content, and under what conditions? A new intellectual copyright law is being debated in the German parliament.

Web search screen with magnifying glass
Image: picture-alliance/dpa

Newspaper publishers and Internet search engines are on a digital collision course. The former want the right to demand licensing fees from search engines that publish short text passages (so-called "snippets") from their papers on the Internet. The latter, in particular Google, are vehemently opposed. A new law, the so-called intellectual copyright law for press publishers, is intended to clarify the legal situation.

On Thursday (29.11.2012), the German parliament is to discuss an initial proposal for the law before it goes to the appropriate parliamentary committees. The law is basically meant to "make sure that press publishers do not make out worse in the online sphere." In other words, publishers would get a cut of the turnover that search engines make when they link to the text snippets and sell advertising relating to that content.

Google on the offensive

Google is mobilizing against the planned law with a campaign under the slogan: "Do you want to continue to find what you're looking for? Take part - defend your 'Net."

"An intellectual copyright law would mean less information for people and higher costs for businesses," said Google's German head Stefan Tweraser, who argued that the law would disrupt the fundamental functions of the Internet.

Google search "ancillary copyright" screenshot
Should Google be free to use such news text snippets in its links?Image: Google

The Internet giant has the support of prominent scientists. On Wednesday, the Max Planck Institute published a statement opposing the planned law, warning of "untold negative consequences." The scientists wrote that several German and European law specialists were concerned about the plan. They added that they believed the current copyright law to provide adequate protection.

Ralf Dewenter, professor of economics at the Heinrich Heine University in Düsseldorf, clarified that "publishers can already deny the right to link to their content if they want." He added that "they can remove themselves from search engines' lists and ensure that their content can't be found."

But publishers may not want to do this, because they gain from the linking. "The online media do a lot to make sure that they appear high up in the searches. They can stop that, but they don't, because they profit from it," said Dewenter, who supports the Max Planck Institute's statement.

Necessity to correct

Ansgar Heveling, a parliamentarian for the conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and member of the "Internet and Digital Society" inquiry commission, described how the press used to have a uniform supply chain. "That meant a publisher owned the entire process from writing an article to selling the paper. The Internet changed that," Heveling said. "With links, search engines can take a portion of the work of others, using the content for themselves and making their own business model out of it."

Up until now, search engines have not been prepared to pay for this - but the new law would change that. Important to note is that the new bill makes a clear distinction between commercial and private content providers. Bloggers, for instance, would not be affected by the intellectual copyright law.

Ansgar Heveling
Heveling believes the law will protect publishersImage: Ansgar Heveling

"It is aimed at providers who make commercial use of the work of others, like publishers, on the Internet. That means search engines and especially so-called news aggregators," said Heveling. Such aggregators include services like Google News, which gather news stories and other content from different Internet sources.

Heveling is not concerned about public criticism of the law. He said he has only received one email after Google began its campaign, and called on Internet users to write to their parliamentarians if they protested.

One supporter of the new law is the association of German journalists (DJV). "For us it is perfectly justifiable for publishers to try to gain extra revenue from content that has been published on their websites with the help of such a law," said DJV spokesman Hendrik Zörner. But the planned law is not without its flaws, in his opinion.

"The authors must also get some of the revenue generated by the intellectual copyright law," said Zörner. "That isn't clearly regulated at the moment. The talk is always of an appropriate recompense, but what 'appropriate' means is completely open to interpretation," said Zörner. "

"We want a fair part of the income to go to a collection organization that distributes the money among authors."

Threat to freedom of information?

But if the law does come into effect soon, what happens if the search engines can't come to an agreement with publishers? Does that mean that German content will only appear on the newspaper websites, and not search engine results? There are differing possibilities, experts say.

Hendrik Zörner
Zörner wants journalists to get a cutImage: DW

"The law could result in making information harder, or even impossible, to find," said Mario Rehse, a copyright expert at the German Association for Information Technology, Telecommunications and New Media. "That would happen if search engines or news aggregators no longer linked to German news sites."

But Heveling does not consider this to be a serious danger. "At the end of the day, it is about balancing rights," he said. "I think there will be a deal between the publishers and the search engines, so that the consequences for individual users are limited as much as possible."

Users "won't notice a difference," Heveling thinks.