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A slice of the pie

Hendrik Heinze / jlwFebruary 24, 2013

It's hard enough to make money with journalism on the Internet - unless your name is Google and you have the ability to create news search results. This irks publishers, which say they deserve a slice of the profit.

Chocolate pie being sliced
Chocolate pie being slicedImage: picture-alliance/dpa

How do you imagine the internet? As a giant web of conduits? A library with endless rows of shelves? In order to understand the importance of the most recent Internet controversy, one should think of a good old chocolate pie. It represents advertising revenue and licensing fees, both of which can be earned through online journalistic texts.

Moist pie, juicy dispute

With this, a battle is raging - not only on the Internet, but also in German parliament, legal opinion and campaigns. On the one hand, online search engines like Google and Bing display small snippets of newspaper articles. They don't pay royalties to anyone, but earn a lot of money from advertisements. Their business model: link and earn.

Opposing these search engines are publishers seeking ancillary copyright law guaranteeing them a cut when search engines use their articles. They argue that they're the ones who develop the content that Google and other search machines list. The pages linked from a search result get traffic, as Google does leads the multitudes of users to them. However, publishers don't see a cent from Google's massive advertising revenue - something they say is unfair. Maybe they wouldn't be so upset if they could at least make some money from the readers who click on their articles - but the commons culture on the Web is their second big concern. Albeit, the publishers are not completely subject to the mercies of the search engines: indeed, they have the ability to opt out of listings in search results.

Screenshot of Google search result for "ancillary copyright"
Publishers want Google to share its advertising revenue with themImage: Google

Which makes one of the great questions of this debate a legal one: Who owes whom money? How much? And for what?

Those taking slices of the pie should be able to work that out amongst themselves - as it's being done in France. There, Google reached a 60 million euro ($70 million) agreement with publishers to pay into a fund.

Christoph Keese at the book fair in Leipzig
Christoph Keese is one of Google's biggest opponentsImage: picture-alliance/dpa

German publishers would prefer that something similar to the French model be enshrined in law. Then, they argue, the law applies to everyone equally, and not just Google. Christoph Kesse, chief lobbyist at the Axel Springer publishing company and one of Google's most famous opponents, was recently quoted as saying in Germany's "Süddeutsche Zeitung" that "France's solution is to wager on the Google monopoly."

Unconstitutional bill

Now, however, Google is ahead in this fight - namely, with a self-commissioned legal report, which DW obtained a copy of.

But ancillary copyright is actually unconstitutional, wrote law professor Alexander Blankenagel. In an interview with DW, he explained that such a law would encroach on a user's fundamental right to freely inform him- or herself.

"If policy-makers were to regulate that on the Internet only certain sources be widely available, but through the complex structure of the Internet much harder to find for regular users, then that's an impairment of the freedom of information for all users," Blankenagel said.

Additionally, news search listing services like Google have the right to try and earn money, says Blankenagel. Interfering with this fundamental right is allowed, but legislators would have to justify this.

Distributing the pie

In Germany,the ruling coalition is formulating resistance to the ancillary copyright movement. Siegfried Kauder, chairman of the justice committee in the German parliament and a member of the majority coalition partner Christian Democratic Union, expressed his concern: "Quite simply, it's about the money," he said. "It is not parliament's job to worry about who gets a bigger share of the pie."

Even Economics Minister Philipp Rösler, of the center-right coalition minority Free Democratic Party, doubts that there's a majority for passing a law on ancillary copyright. The minister cited rumours that large German publishers have long been negotiating with Google - possibly with the aim of agreeing on a model similar to the one in France. German publishers, however, dispute this, saying that ancillary rights still need to be a focus.

Exhibitors of the Google company work on laptop computers in front of an illuminated sign of the Google logo at the industrial fair Hannover Messe in Hanover, Germany, in 2007.
Internet powerhouse Google is defending itself in intellectual property rights battlesImage: dapd

Ancillary rights buried?

It's ultimately a dispute over something quite abstract: copyright. Those who write articles, or theater plays, or compose songs, are granted royalties when their work is published or performed. Through this, many artists are able to make a living from their work. This also benefits society, in that they get great music, stirring books and high-quality journalism.

Either way, kickbacks are always negotiable - whether with all of society, or with individual parties. Google and the publishers therefore must come to an agreement, or as Keese put it: "the future of search engines and news aggregators cannot conflict with creative industries."