A Belgian court on Friday will hear Google Inc.'s defense against local newspaper complaints that it stole content from their Web sites without paying them or asking their permission.

This will be the first time Google (GOOG) argues its case after the Brussels-based Court of First Instance ordered the California-based company to remove Belgian French-language newspaper content from its news index, threatening daily fines of $1.28 million.

Google failed to appear at an earlier hearing that led up to that ruling and asked for another opportunity to defend itself against the charges made by Copiepresse, a copyright protection group representing the country's French-language editors.

Copiepresse had claimed that Google ignored its original requests to remove content. It said it had a much happier experience with Microsoft Corp.'s MSN Belgian site, entering talks to find a solution.

Google's 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.

Google spokeswoman Jessica Powell said the company had complied with the ruling when it received it in mid-September, stripping out Belgian newspaper content from Google News and publishing the entire text of the judgment on its home page.

"We're glad to have the opportunity to argue the substance," she said. "We think that search engines are real benefit to publishers and drive valuable traffic to their Web sites."

The popular news site features small photos and excerpts from news reported elsewhere with links to entire articles hosted on news providers' own Web sites.

Google said its service is lawful and drives traffic to newspaper sites because people need to click through to the original publisher to read the full story. It now displays stories from news agencies, foreign newspapers and Internet sites belonging to local television stations.

Powell said the Internet search company strenuously tries to give newspapers the opportunity to be excluded from the site if they want, by telling the robots.txt information gatherer to avoid certain content and also by alerting Google directly if they want to keep their content off the site.

The company also tried to calm publishers' fears this month by releasing Sitemaps, a tool that aims to give Web sites more control over what content they do or don't want included in Google News. It is currently only available to English-language publishers.

Newspapers are working in a similar direction with the World Association of Newspapers launching a yearlong project to help Web sites decide what they want listed in search engines.

Google News, which debuted in 2002, scans thousands of news outlets and highlights the top stories under common categories such as world and sports. Many stories carry a small image, or thumbnail, along with the headline and the first sentence or two. Visitors can click on the headline to read the full story at the source Web site.

The French news agency AFP sued Google for at least $17.5 million in damages in U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., arguing that the Google service adds little value because its news site looks much like those of AFP subscribers, albeit one where software and not human editors determine the placement of stories on a page.

Separately, Google has agreed to pay The Associated Press for stories and photographs. Neither Google nor New York-based AP have disclosed financial terms or other details because of a nondisclosure agreement.