As German government officials prepared to meet to discuss a controversial online copyright bill on Wednesday, Yahoo, Facebook and German online startups slammed the proposal that would allow publishers to charge search engines such as Google for reproducing short snippets from news articles.
Search engines often republish parts of news articles without the publishers' consent, and without sharing revenue. The proposed law would grant news publishers the exclusive right to publish and commercialize their online products. The intent is to protect the publishers against systematic access by search engine providers and similar services, the German Cabinet said.
Opposition to the new copyright bill has chiefly come from Google until now, but despite those efforts it is still en route to becoming law. As a next step in the process, a German parliamentary committee was set to hear nine experts on Wednesday who were invited to express their views on the matter. While the list of invitees includes lawyers, professors and people representing the publishing industry, it lacks industry players like Google, Facebook or other tech companies.
The German tech industry however, is still chiming in, trying to influence the debate by publishing their own or commissioned opinions on the matter.
The proposed bill is "immature and superfluous," especially from the perspective of social media providers, wrote Thomas Hoeren, professor at the Institute for Information, Telecommunication and Media Law (ITM) in Münster. He published an opinion on the matter ahead of the debate that was commissioned by Facebook, but independently crafted, he said.
While the bill specifies rules for search engines, it doesn't do that for social media providers like Facebook and Twitter, said Hoeren. The absence of specific regulations for social media means that individual cases would have to be referred to the courts, and that will probably lead to years of litigation between social media providers and publishers, Hoeren said.
Yahoo Germany also opposes the bill. The company is both a search engine provider and also a publisher employing more than 30 journalists, wrote Heiko Genzlinger, managing director of Yahoo Germany. Because the bill puts the company in a position in which it might be protected as a publisher while at the same time being exposed to possible litigation, Yahoo is "explicitly against" the proposal, which "harms the market more than it does good," Genzlinger wrote.
The proposed law also has the potential to hit small local search engines like the Germany-based Yahoo search especially hard, he said. "Specialized attorneys will use the proposed intellectual property right as a new business model," he said, adding that the German search engines are likely to be an easier target than U.S.-based providers like Bing and Google. Local search engines are likely to get hit first with cease-and-desist requests, probably followed by claims for legal fees and licensing demands, he said.
Also, it is technically impossible for search engines to exclude all news articles from search results because search algorithms cannot determine whether or not a website offers newspaper content, he said.
Opposition also comes from the Federation of German Startups. The proposed law slows innovation and gives companies a competitive disadvantage, especially on an international level, the federation stated on its website.
The federation's backers include David Khalil, CEO of dating site eDarling, who warned that German Internet users are likely to be partially excluded from the use of advanced information services if the bill becomes law.
A similar argument was used by Google when it launched a campaign against the proposed law in November, saying that such a law can "massively disturb" the way people search and find information on the Internet.
While players in the German online industry opposed the copyright bill, the Federation of German Newspaper Publishers (BDZV) emphasized in its opinion sent to the Cabinet that the law is necessary to protect publishers' rights. Publishers are not after statutory compensation fees, but rather want a legal basis to prohibit undesirable uses and to allow desired uses of their content, wrote Christoph Keese, public affairs manager for publishing company Axel Springer who will represent the publishers at Wednesday's hearing.
The BDZV proposed to add protection for bloggers, a category of publishers that at the moment isn't protected by the draft law. Private parties, law firms as well as other commercial businesses are also not protected.
A similar call came from the German Journalists Association (DJV). The organization advised to not only include online newspapers and magazines, but to provide an intellectual property right for all publishers, said Benno Pöppelmann, legal advisor of the DJV in an opinion sent to the cabinet.
After the Legal Affairs Committee hearing, the draft will probably be discussed by the plenary next, which can happen in a week or two, a spokeswoman for the German government said.
Loek is Amsterdam Correspondent and covers online privacy, intellectual property, open-source and online payment issues for the IDG News Service. Follow him on Twitter at @loekessers or email tips and comments to firstname.lastname@example.org