The case shows that the EU's copyright reform has teeth | Denis Charlet/AFP via Getty Images

French publishers win decisive battle against Google

Europe’s copyright directive proves its mettle as France orders the US search giant to pay for press content.

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French publishers on Thursday notched up a critical win in the long-running tug of war with Google over how money is generated from online content.

France’s competition watchdog ordered the U.S. tech giant to negotiate “in good faith” with French publishers and news services over the licensing fees it should pay for press content. The Autorité de la Concurrence said the talks should be wrapped up in three months, and insisted that they should result in a “remuneration” scheme for the publishers.

Google’s refusal to pay for press content has risen right to the top of the French political agenda and even drew in President Emmanuel Macron, who cast the debate as a matter of national sovereignty and declared last year: “Some actors, such as Google, wish to free themselves from those [copyright] rules. We won’t let them.”

Crucially, Thursday’s case shows that the EU’s copyright reform has teeth. The reform, which was adopted nearly a year ago in Brussels, granted press publishers a so-called neighboring right allowing them to request a fee from platforms such as Google and Facebook when they display their content online. France was the bloc’s first country to transpose the reform into national law.

“This is an important step toward the effective enforcement of the publishers’ neighboring right,” France’s Culture Minister Franck Riester said in response to the watchdog’s decision. “Some people wanted this right to remain a dead letter. They made a mistake,” he added.

The Autorité is still investigating whether the U.S. search behemoth breached competition rules at the expense of the French press, but Thursday’s decision means Google has to pay publishers when it uses their content online, and soon.

Third time’s a charm

In September, Google announced it would no longer publish small excerpts of press articles below web links, also called snippets, instead of entering into licensing agreements with the press. Publishers and the news agency AFP decided to lodge a complaint before the Autorité arguing that the search company’s behavior was an abuse of its powerful position as a search engine.

France is set to become the first country where publishers have succeeded in wresting payment from Google for their content.

Before the EU copyright reform was adopted, press publishers in Europe struggled to negotiate with Google.

In Spain, Google decided to stop its Google News service after a debate over the right to payments. In Germany, some publishers — including Axel Springer, POLITICO Europe’s co-owner — decided to allow the U.S. tech giant to publish their content for free after a drop in traffic.

Thursday’s decision means the French press could soon benefit from new revenue streams — a welcome relief for an industry hit hard by plummeting ad spendings amid the coronavirus crisis.

“The objective of the EU is that the editors are better paid when they negotiate the use of their articles which largely benefit the platforms through the advertising revenues,” a spokesman for the European Commission said.

Temporary victory

The watchdog issued a preliminary ruling that Google may have “impos[ed] unfair transaction conditions on publishers and news agencies” after France introduced new EU copyright rules for the press in October.

Isabelle de Silva, the Autorité’s chief, said the watchdog “found that Google’s practices vis-à-vis publishers and news agencies were likely to constitute an abuse of a dominant position.”

The Autorité also found Google caused “serious and immediate damage to the press sector,” the official statement reads, and ordered urgent measures.

“The injunction requires that the negotiations actually result in a remuneration proposal from Google,” the authority’s official statement reads.

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“This is an exceptional decision,” said Jacques-Philippe Gunther, a lawyer for Latham & Watkins. The counsel of the Alliance de la Presse d’Information Générale (APIG), one of the complainants, told POLITICO in his view, the Autorité recognized “Google has circumvented the law on neighboring rights, which could constitute an abuse of dominant position.”

The negotiations cannot exceed three months, and the terms and conditions should apply retrospectively starting when France implemented its new rules. The watchdog also imposed additional measures preventing Google from retaliating against the complainants. Google is bound to send the Autorité a follow-up report every month.

Google “will comply with the [authority]’s order while we review it and continue those negotiations,” said Richard Gingras, Google’s vice president for news.

Damien Gerardin, a lawyer who acts for publishers in other antitrust cases, said this was a “very important decision … but these are interim measures so [the] battle is not over.”

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Authors:
Thibault Larger 

and

Laura Kayali 

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