AFP Says ‘Non’ to Google News

Google’s stated mission is “to make all the world’s information available online.” Agence France Presse (AFP) calls that copyright infringement.

The French counterpart to the Associated Press or Reuters sued Internet search leader Google on Thursday, claiming that Google News cuts into its subscription business. Google News is a beta service launched in September 2002 that aggregates news by topic and allows searches of recent items.

AFP is one of the top global news agencies; newspapers, magazines, radio and television stations and Internet publishers subscribe to receive its wire stories, running them with AFP credits.

The nut of the complaint is simple: “Without AFP’s permission, Defendant is reproducing and publicly displaying AFP’s photographs, headlines, and story leads on Defendant’s news aggregation Web site.”

Google’s news crawlers behave like regular search crawlers, according to someone familiar with the technology. Several times a day, they crawl news sites and index the information they find.

News organizations that don’t want to be indexed by Google news must take the initiative themselves. Webmasters can use the same techniques to block Google News’ crawlers that they use to prevent any other search engine from crawling certain pages or sites, by placing code in the robots.txt file to warn them off.

“We allow publishers to opt out of Google News,” said Google spokesperson Steve Longdon.

The issue at the center of the dispute, said Martin Schwimmer, an attorney specializing in copyright and trademark, is, “Where is the line where costs get shifted from the IP owner to the intermediary? Can Google assume that the world is free to index? How hard does it have to try when someone objects?”

According to Schwimmer, publishers might expect that search companies will address their concerns. But technology companies often take the attitude that, because tools are available that let publishers manage crawlers, parties like AFP should use the tools or take responsibility for the consequences.

“Google may be correct that if AFP had taken certain steps, this would not have occurred,” Schwimmer said. “And AFP might be justified in saying that putting a copyright tag on the content should have been enough.”

The AFP complaint alleges three different kinds of copyright infringement: one for Google News’ publishing of its headlines; one for printing its photographs; and one for stripping AFP’s copyright information from leads and photos.

While some might argue that the headlines and leads don’t constitute that much content, according to the AFP complaint, “The story headlines and leads are qualitatively the most important aspects of a story and are painstakingly created. They capture the reader’s attention and describe what the rest of the article is about.”

Schwimmer said use of the headlines likely comes under fair use principles, especially since Google News uses automated means to gather them into topics. “But Google really will have to address the ‘lead is the heart’ argument,” he said.

According to Schwimmer, the courts have held that the concept of fair use doesn’t merely apply to how much of a work is quoted. “It’s not fair use if you took the heart of the work,” he said.

In the suit, filed in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, AFP said that Google News uses its photographs exactly as paying subscribers would, without transforming them in any way. Worse, it removes AFP’s copyright information from the items.

AFP is asking for $150,000 per infringement and expects a judgment of no less than $15,000,000, plus another $2,500,000 for removing the copyright management information from photos and story leads.

Schwimmer said that because so many news organizations now use Real Simple Syndication (RSS) to let users automatically receive lists of story headlines and, sometimes, leads, the perceived value of AFP’s heads and leads might be lower.

Google could get into similar hot water for Google Books, a product it launched in December 2004. The project aims to digitize entire volumes and let users search within them. The book results have begun to appear at the top of the Google natural search results page, highlighted as “Results from Books.”

When Google announced Google Books, Google Director of Product Management Susan Wojcicki told that for books under copyright, Google would make agreements with the publishers and include links to e-commerce sites where would-be readers could purchase them.

The company also was hit by several trademark infringement suits by companies irked at the search provider’s practice of letting competitors bid to show ads when a searcher types the company name into the query box, a practice Google no longer allows.

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