Belgian court rules against Google


BRUSSELS -- A Brussels court on Tuesday confirmed that Google broke copyright law by publishing links to Belgian newspapers without permission. The court ordered the Internet giant to remove Belgian newspaper content from its search engine results, and levied retrospective fines of as much as €3.4 million ($4.4 million).

The court in Brussels said Google had no authority to reproduce articles from French-language newspapers in the Belgian section of its Google News Web site.

Copiepresse, an organization that manages copyright for Belgium's French- and German-language press, lodged the complaint against the Internet search engine.

The ruling by the Brussels Court of First Instance confirms an earlier court decision last September that ordered Google to remove thousands of articles, photos and images from Google News or face a fine of €1 million ($1.3 million) per day for breaching authors' rights and data bank regulations. However, Tuesday's ruling slashed the fines to just €25,000 ($32,500) a day, though they are retroactive from September, when the search engine was first asked to remove the content.

After Google News Belgium was launched earlier last year, scanning some 400 Belgian news sites, the country's Dutch-language newspapers represented by Reprocopy press in Belgium refused to allow Google to use their stories. Copiepresse took it one step further and lodged legal action.

Google faces other court cases over its news service, including one in the U.S. District Court of Columbia and one in the Paris Commercial Court. In 2005, Agence France Presse (AFP) sued Google, saying the Web site removed photo credits and copyright notices in violation of federal law. Google last year postponed plans for a Danish news site after newspapers complained.

Copiepresse plans to target all search engines that offer similar services, its secretary-general, Margaret Boribon, said, including Yahoo! and MSN. "The Internet is not the Wild West," she said.

Francois Le Hodey, editor of the La Libre Belgique newspaper, accused Google of using his copyrighted news content to generate "colossal traffic" and advertising profits.

Google insists that its search services are legal and help Belgian newspapers by pushing millions of Internet surfers to their Web sites, thus helping to boost advertising revenue. "We only ever show the headlines and a few snippets of text and small thumbnail images. If people want to read the entire story, they have to click through to the newspaper's Web site," said a Google statement.

Google said it has already removed the content and will again appeal the ruling. But its French- and Dutch-language Belgian news pages are now empty of much local content, largely containing reports from news agencies, news Web sites and foreign newspapers. In November, Google settled with photographers, broadcasters and authors who had joined the Copiepresse complaint.

The court decision comes at a difficult time for the search engine: Earlier this month, Viacom ordered Google's YouTube site to take down video clips of its programs, and Jeff Zucker, the new chief executive of NBC Universal, recently criticized Google and YouTube for dragging their feet on implementing technology to prevent copyright infringement.