That didn’t take long: “Google should pay ALL publishers in EU”

That didn’t take long: Francisco Pinto Balsemao is the head of the European Publishers Council, and he thinks that Google should make deals with ALL the European publishers, instead of just with the French and the Belgian.

Last week, French president François Hollande and Google chairman Eric Schmidt announced a € 60 million innovation fund for the French media. The money will be spread around over a period of three years among ‘innovation’ projects from the publishers.

With the deal, Google avoided a debate about the question whether it is unfairly siphoning off advertising value that is created by the publishers by linking to press articles and showing “snippets” of the media’s content.

Google managed to avoid the term ‘ancillary copyrights’ in the deal, but of course no one was fooled: Google is showing publishers that it’s willing to pay to keep the peace. The move was strictly defensive, and bought only time.

In December, Google had already settled with the Belgian publishers, also carefully avoiding any mention of pay-per-snippet.

According to Frederic Filloux of Les Echos and MondayNote, Google headquarters in Mountain View wasn’t eager to strike a deal with the French publishers. It’s clear why they felt nothing good would come of it. With that Google Wallet opening every time like magic, it’s only a matter of time before someone else beats the war drum. German publishers are pushing for an ancillary copyright for the snippets that search engines and aggregators use. And now, barely a week after the French deal, the entire guild of European publishers feels emboldened.

“Search engines get more than 90 percent of revenues from online advertising and a substantial part of these come directly or indirectly from the free access to professional news or entertainment content produced by the media,” Francisco Pinto Balsemao told Reuters.

Inevitably, Google will have to choose one of two things at some point: either admit that it’s deriving value from the publishers and pay up. Or say ‘whatever’ and remove the publishers from its search results.

That last option has drawbacks, because that could very well lead to competition procedures claiming that Google is abusing its power to “deny the publishers traffic”. Google can’t use that kind of political pressure, since it’s already dealing with EU competition chief Almunia, who said recently that in his opinion “Google is abusing its dominant position.”

Google is in a double bind. And the European publishers are trying to manoeuvre it in a position where it is both forced to keep sending them traffic, AND pay for the privilege. Says Balsemao:

“This use is carried out without the authorisation from copyright holders or without any payment in return. So, all aggregators, like Google, should pay.” (also at Reuters).

This is not true, of course. Using robot.txt tags, the publishers could tell Google not to index their website – but they don’t want that. Of course, you can spin that and say that you shouldn’t have to add a robot.txt tag, and that Google should ask for permission to crawl your site. But no one’s fooled: the publishers just want to have their cake and eat it too.

It’s only a matter of time before Google will be forced to choose a real position – it can’t keep buying time by spending a few million here and there (however cheap they have been able to do it until now). It will have to face the ugly question of: is Google adding value or taking value from others?

The publishers are trying to frame the debate to make it look like most value on the internet is derived from them. Which is demonstrably false. Recent research showed that media sites represent less than 4 % of the time people spend online. But by always giving in to the claims, Google looks weak and appeasing.

I’m not sure what Google’s master plan is here, it seems a bit frozen to be honest. Which is logical, given the situation: it’s a game of heads I win, tails you lose.

Google is, as I wrote last week, only the first step in the publisher’s master plan: if they can win this battle with Google, they will go after aggregators (forgetting, for the moment, that their own newspapers are often the most voracious aggregators). After that, they have already announced that they will start gunning for Amazon, Apple and Microsoft.

Expect this dance to last for at least a few more years.

[photo: TechCrunch, Flickr]

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About the author

Raf Weverbergh

Editor of whiteboard. Raf Weverbergh was a magazine journalist whose work appeared in magazines like Rolling Stone, Playboy, Mail on Sunday, Publico and South China Morning Post. He is the co-founder of FINN, a corporate communications agency where he advises startups and multinationals on their PR and Mustr, the easiest media database for PR professionals. You can contact him on Twitter, Linkedin or Skype (rafweverbergh).

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