Belgian Court Rules for Newspapers Against Google

A court on Tuesday ruled in favor of Belgian newspapers that sued Google Inc. (GOOG), claiming that the Web search Internet search leader infringed copyright laws and demanded it remove their stories.

The Mountain View, Calif.-based company that operates the world's most-used search engine immediately said it would appeal, claiming its Google News service was "entirely legal."

A Brussels court ruled in favor of Copiepresse, a copyright-protection group representing 18 mostly French-language newspapers that complained the search engine's "cached" links offered free access to archived articles that the papers usually sell on a subscription basis.

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It ordered Google to remove any articles, photos or links from its sites — including Google News — that it displays without the newspapers' permission.

But in the future, it said it would be up to copyright owners to get in touch with Google by e-mail to complain if the site was posting content that belonged to them. Google would then have 24 hours to withdraw the content or face a daily fine of 1,000 euros ($1,295).

The court cut a retroactive daily fine of 25,000 euros ($32,390) for each day Google did not comply — far lower than an earlier judgment that threatened 1 million euros ($1.3 million) a day.

However, since Google removed content and links to Copiepresse newspapers such as Le Soir and La Derniere Heure in September, it is unclear how much any total fine would be.

Google would not comment on the fine, saying its lawyers were still examining the judgment, but did say it was disappointed with the ruling and would appeal.

"We believe that Google News is entirely legal," the company said in a statement. "We only ever show the headlines and a few snippets of text and small thumbnail images. If people want to read the entire story they have to click through to the newspaper's Web site."

Google said its service actually does newspapers a favor by driving traffic to their sites.

But the court said Google's innovations don't get exemptions from Belgian data-storage law.

"We confirm that the activities of Google News, the reproduction and publication of headlines as well as short extracts, and the use of Google's cache, the publicly available data storage of articles and documents, violate the law on authors' rights," the ruling said.

Most Belgian newspapers offer new articles to readers for free, but charge for access to older stories.

Copiepresse first cried foul last February after Google launched a Belgian version of its Google News service in January 2006, displaying content from local newspapers found by its search engine.

Copiepresse insisted that Google should have asked first before it posted a headline and a link to the story. It also claimed that Google hurt the rights of authors because its stored cache of older stories effectively gave away content to archived stories they usually charge for.

A court ruling in September agreed and ordered Google to remove newspaper content from its news index under threat of daily fines of 1 million euros ($1.3 million).

That decision came as a shock to Google, which had failed to appear at an earlier court hearing. The court later agreed to hear the case again to allow Google to put its side forward.