Google lost a copyright lawsuit Tuesday to Belgian newspapers that had demanded it remove headlines and links to news stories posted without their permission. The ruling, if confirmed, could set a precedent for how Web search engines link to copyrighted material in the tumultuous arena of online news.
The company behind the world's most-used search engine immediately said it would appeal, claiming its Google News service was "entirely legal" and the Belgian decision was a one-time result that would not be repeated elsewhere.
The Brussels Court of First Instance ruled that California-based Google could not call on exemptions, such as claiming "fair use" because it says it reviews press articles when it displays headlines, a few lines of text, photos and links to the original page.
"Google is reproducing and publishing works protected by copyright," it said. "Google cannot call on any exceptions set out by law relating to copyright or similar rights."
It decided in favor of Copiepresse, a copyright protection group representing 17 mostly French-language newspapers that complained the search engine's "cached" links offered free access to archived articles that the papers usually sell.
Copiepresse said the ruling was based on EU law and could trigger similar cases against Google in other nations, mentioning talks with copyright groups in Norway, Austria and Italy.
But Google said the judgment -- which confirms an initial ruling in September -- would not necessarily carry influence in other areas.
"This ruling does not mean that everywhere else or every other judge in any other country would rule in the same, even in Belgium," said Yoram Elkaim, legal counsel for Google News. "There are conflicting rulings on those issues which are fairly new and complicated."
U.S.-based technology lawyer Jonathan Band said the ruling was neither final -- as it can be appealed to higher courts in Belgium -- nor did it bear much weight since legal precedent is not as important in Continental European law.
"I'm sure other newspaper publishers are probably going to read the decision carefully but the most important factor is that it's not the ultimate ruling," he said.
In the U.S., Internet search engines have been able to call on "fair use" to defend the republication of text excerpts and a similar system exists in British law.
"On the Continent, they don't have that," he said.
Google said the court still had not settled the debate on what the ruling covered, claiming it only applied to Google News Belgium and google.be.
"In our view we have complied with the ruling fully since September," Elkaim said.
If the court agrees, Google would not have to pay retroactive daily fines of 25,000 euros (more than $32,000) for each day Google did not comply -- far lower than an earlier judgment that threatened 1 million euros ($1.3 million) a day.
But Copiepresse lawyer Bernard Magrez claimed Google was still not complying fully with the ruling -- saying it covered google.com and other versions -- meaning fines could run up to around 3 million euros ($3.9 million) or 3.3 million euros ($4.3 million).
Copiepresse is still negotiating similar copyright issues with Yahoo and MSN.
The group's secretary general Margaret Boribon said all companies that republish copyrighted works had to understand that they need to seek permission and pay compensation.
"Content made available by editors is quality content that is very expensive to produce and which has value ... and that value should be recognized," she told reporters.
Elkaim, however, ruled out paying to display content -- Copiepresse's key demand -- but said Google was willing to discuss terms with the Belgian newspapers. He also said the ruling doesn't change its basic way of doing business.
"It shouldn't preclude us from continuing to collaborate with news publishers who generally ... do want their content to be searchable so that more people can find their content on their Web site," he said. "The vast majority of publishers are happy to be included in Google News and actually we receive more complaints from publishers that are not included."
In the future, the court said it would be up to copyright owners to get in touch with Google 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).
"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.
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.
A court ruling in September ordered Google to remove newspaper content from its news index under threat of daily fines. 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.