September 18, 2006 9:30 pm

Belgian court brings Google bad news

Google has vowed to appeal against a Belgian court ruling that represents the first legal blow against its controversial Google News service which has provoked the ire of European publishers.

A Brussels court told the world’s most popular internet search engine to scrap links to a number of newspapers after ruling that the company had broken Belgian copyright laws by publishing their material without permission. It was told to remove stories from certain publications on its Belgian news website or face a daily fine of €1m ($1.27m).

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A similar case has been mounted in France by Agence France Presse, and an association of European publishers earlier this year accused Google and other search engines of theft for including material from newspapers, magazines and books in their indexes.

A Google spokesperson warned that the Belgian ruling appeared to strike at the way that search engines operate, implying that they should not be able to “crawl” and index any website without first getting permission from the owner.

The case was brought by Copiepresse, a media copyright organisation on behalf of publications including La Libre Belgique and Le Soir, two Belgian French-language national newspapers.

Margaret Boribon, Copiepresse secretary-general, said: “Google must first ask a company when it wanets to use its content. What we want to achieve is to be remunerated for the use of our content.”

She added that Belgian copyright laws were based on European Union directives, which suggests that Google could find itself in similar confrontations across the 25-country union.

The spokesperson for Google said that the company’s news service only makes a copy of material held on other websites so that the information can be indexed by the search engine, and that the copy is not used for any other purpose.

She denied a claim, made during the hearings in Belgium, that Google also “caches” pages from news sites, keeping copies of them on its own servers to make it quicker for users to find them.

Google also denied that it made any money from the newspaper material, since its Google News service does not carry advertising.

However, some news headlines can also be found through the company’s main search engine, which does carry advertising.

Google said it was blindsided by the decision, having only found out about it on Friday, two weeks after the hearing. It said it had not been able to put its case directly to the judge.

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