A group of newspaper, magazine and book publishers is accusing Google and other aggregators of online news stories of unfairly exploiting their content. They are demanding compensation from search engines.

Gavin O’Reilly, the president of the World Association of Newspapers, which is co-ordinating the campaign, said on Tuesday: “We need search engines, and they do help consumers navigate an increasingly complicated medium, but they’re building [their business] on the back of kleptomania.”

The group of publishers, which includes the International Publishers’ Association, the European Federation of Magazine Publishers and Agence France Presse, is seeking meetings with Charlie McCreevy, the European Union’s internal market commissioner, and Viviane Reding, the commissioner responsible for media. It would not rule out legal action to enforce copyright or “collective action”, Mr O’Reilly said. “Ultimately, the aggregators need the content providers.”

Services such as Google News link to original news stories on the home pages of newspapers and magazines and display only the headline and one paragraph of the story. “That’s often enough” for readers browsing the top stories, Mr O’Reilly said.

The initiative follows a decision by the American Association of Publishers to seek an injunction against its project to create a digital archive of millions of library books. The lawsuit was filed late last year on behalf of publishers including Pearson, the owner of the Financial Times.

The growth of online news aggregators has coincided with an acceleration in the long-term trend of declining readership for print newspapers and a shift in advertising spending from print to the internet, much of which is not being captured by the newspapers’ own sites.

“The search engines are increasingly aiming their strategic efforts at traditional content originators and aggregators like newspaper publishers,” Mr O’Reilly said. “The irony is that these search engines exist, largely, because of the traditional news and content aggregators and profit at their expense.”

The WAN, which represents 18,000 newspapers and 73 national newspaper associations, said it would examine whether new standards and policies could be drafted to create a commercial relationship between publishers, search engines and content aggregators.

Mr O’Reilly singled out Google for criticism, saying: “As a general rule, Yahoo, MSN and Ask Jeeves seem more open to constructive dialogue. It’s only Google which seems to have this absolute view [that all information should be available for free].” Google could not immediately be reached for comment.

Mr O’Reilly likened the initiative to the conflict between the music industry and illegal file-sharing websites and said it was not a sign that publishers had failed to create a competitive online business model of their own.

“I think newspapers have developed very compelling web portals and news channels but the fact here is that we’re dealing with basic theft,” he said.

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