What does Google’s pushback on a new French copyright law mean for publishers?

By L. Carol Christopher


Pleasant Hill, California, USA


Google’s refusal to pay French publishers to display summaries of their stories has ignited debate about how platforms might comply with looming European copyright law — with some seeing Apple and Facebook models as a nuanced path to remuneration. 

Google announced last week it would not pay European publishers for their preview content in France in Google Search and Google News. The announcement came just weeks before the enactment of a new law in France that precedes a Europe-wide change next year.  

On the left, Google search results before the change (when it ran summaries alongside links) and on the right after (now that it refuses to pay new fees).
On the left, Google search results before the change (when it ran summaries alongside links) and on the right after (now that it refuses to pay new fees).

It provides publishers with a so-called “neighbouring right” requiring digital aggregators to pay for content they re-use, including for short excerpts from articles. 

“When the French law comes into force, we will not show preview content in France for a European news publication unless the publisher has taken steps to tell us that’s what they want,” said Google Vice President of News Richard Gingras.  

The French law, derivative of EU Copyright Directive , follows years of lobbying by some of Europe’s largest publishers for the neighbouring right, or “link tax,” which would allow publishers bargaining power when dealing with Big Tech. France, the first to bring in the accompanying national law, is seen as the most eager country to implement the EU Copyright Directive. EU countries all must pass enabling national legislation by the end of 2020. 

French Minister of Culture Frank Riester called Google’s response “contrary to the spirit and the text of the legislation.” 

In a survey of INMA publishers released last month about their relatinships with digital platforms, “lack of copyright recognition for use of content” topped for the publishers’ list of priority areas that required legal intervention.  

If publishers do not follow Google’s guidelines allowing snippets to be shown for free, Google says it won’t show them at all. It will continue to show headlines and provide links. Said Google:

“Because of changes in copyright law in France, Google Search will not display text snippets or image thumbnails for affected European press publications in France, unless the Web site has implemented meta tags to permit search previews.”

The bottom line: Google is happy to continue showing content in Google News and Google Search as long as publishers agree to provide it for free. 

“Refusing to pay for content in news snippets shouldn’t be a surprise and won’t be the end of the matter,” said Robert Whitehead, author of INMA’s new report, “How to Decode the Publisher-Platform Relationship.” “Refusing to pay for content it shows in its search results and Google News merely renews its historic position ahead of the EU-wide legal change.” 

Google is clearly laying down the fact it won’t easily negotiate to pay for content it has been publishing for free for years and which brings publishers big traffic numbers.

Said Google’s Gingras in a Twitter feed: “Publishers want to be found by readers. They pay newsstands to be found. Google provides this service for free. Snippets are promotional elements they can offer or not.” 

The news wasn’t a surprise to media analyst and author Thomas Baekdal either, because, as he argues on Twitter, copyright laws remain flawed because they don’t solve the copyright problem.  

The publisher claim for compensation, Baekdal says, is based on a “delusion that Google has taken away money that was somehow theirs.” He continues: 

“Whenever we talk about misuse of monopoly powers, we talk about using it to favour some services over others. Google is doing the opposite of this. They are saying that everyone is treated the same way in search. But this is not what publishers want. They want Google to pay them, to rank them higher than other sites, and to generally give us preferential treatment.” 

A way forward? 

Whitehead, the INMA report author, says the news from Google needs to be seen in the context of more interesting developments in payment-for-content that are happening elsewhere. 

Facebook and Apple may be pointing to a potential path forward that is a “more constructive approach,” he says. Both are inventing new vehicles to offer what is in effect content licensing fees while wanting to strictly quarantine their historic aggregation of content from any future payment:

  • Facebook isn’t going to budge on News Feed content remuneration, but it is inventing a new product that it will pay [some] publishers for.  
  • Apple isn’t going to budge on paying for Apple News, its general aggregation service, but it has invented a new product (Apple News+), and it will share half of all subscription revenues with publishers, divided up based on actual audience usage.  

“So both companies are creating something new that they’ll pay for,” Whitehead said, “while standing firm on their historic refusals. That’s a breakthrough in the long-running standoff over payment. Snap has also begun to offer publishers content deals for a new news tab in Snapchat. 

“We also have Microsoft News and now Twitter striking payment deals with publishers for the use of professional journalism.” 

Déjà vu all over again?

Part of the hope for the European Publisher Right, according to Politico.eu, was the neighbouring right would “shift advertising revenue from Google and Facebook back to news organisations.” The lost revenues are estimated by news publishers to be between €250 million and €320 million per year. 

Google is so opposed to the new EU laws that in December Gingras wrote that the company would consider pulling Google News out of Europe completely if the wording of the article was not changed, although some see this as unlikely. 

Observers note that we’ve reached this fork in the road before. 

Legislating for a copyright fee has previously failed in both Spain and in Germany, where a neighbouring right was passed into law. Virtually the same move. The results at the time? 

  • In Germany, publishers re-thought their strategy and elected to offer that content for free as requested by Google after traffic declined by up to 40% in 2014. 
  • In Spain, Google removed Spanish newspapers from the Google News index entirely in response in 2014. Consequential loss estimates hover below 20%. 

Academics studying the impact of the German and Spanish legal cases believe the impact on traffic was much less in the long run. 

But is a short-term drop such a problem anyway if the future of news publishers involves becoming less dependent, as Whitehead’s report argues, on any one digital platform and its policies? 


Denmark’s Stig Ørskov, CEO, JP/Politikens Hus, responds to last week's news.
Denmark’s Stig Ørskov, CEO, JP/Politikens Hus, responds to last week's news.

In Denmark, where Google News was never launched, “publishers have a significantly larger share of direct traffic than their foreign peers [a]nd a strong foundation for a fast-growing digital subscription business,” said Denmark’s Stig Ørskov, CEO, JP/Politikens Hus, in his contested Twitter feed.

It isn’t 2014 anymore, and some analysis suggests that pulling Google News out of the entirety of Europe would be a more challenging experience for the company than shutting down Spain — or even China.  

Google maintains its traffic drives ad revenue for news media and that it is traffic news outlets would not otherwise have. In his recent blog, Gingras said:

“In Europe alone, Google sends more than eight billion visits to news publisher Web sites each month, or more than 3,000 visits every single second. Publishers can then build their audiences and grow their revenue from these visits through advertising and/or subscriptions. The research firm Deloitte has estimated that each one of the clicks that Google sends to large publishers is worth between 4 and 6 Euro cents in additional revenue potential.” 

Google has always argued it makes no money out of Google News; news media lobbyists argue it makes billions from the traffic journalism brings to the wider Google network.  

The company outlined unintended consequences of the French and EU laws in an earlier blog post before both laws passed: News aggregators would favour the larger companies because of the complexity of doing license deals across tens of thousands of content creators. 

“Online services … would have to make choices about what publishers they’d do deals with,” Gingras said, since the company would find it difficult to license all of the 80,000 news publishers around the world that currently show up in Google News.

As Whitehead said: “Google’s latest move doesn’t mean it is game over at all. Let’s see if Google, like Apple and Facebook, can also find some middle ground to help directly fund the journalism that they use.”

About L. Carol Christopher

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