Germany is leading a growing European movement to let newspaper publishers charge internet search engines for displaying links to their articles — a move market-leader Google warns could cause an internet news blackout.
The so-called ancillary copyright bill — to be debated by the Bundestag for the first time at the end of November — will give newspaper and magazine publishers the right to stop search engines and news aggregators from linking to their web pages if Google and its rivals refuse to pay royalties for their use.
Günter Krings, a senior lawmaker in Chancellor Angela Merkel's CDU party, calls the initiative the "little brother" of copyright law. "Just like that which protects the rights of a songwriter or music company, ancillary copyright levels the playing field between print publishers and search engines and aggregators," he said.
The idea of forcing internet sites to share some of the revenue they earn from selling ad space alongside listings of newspaper and magazine articles is so alluring that France is considering similar rules — and Italy could also follow.
In pushing the bill, Germany is burnishing its reputation as a staunch defender of intellectual property rights on the internet and a challenge to the web's "free content" ethos.
Gema, the German songwriters' rights society, has already become notorious in web circles for its long fight with YouTube over the size of royalties that Google's video-streaming service should pay songwriters. A new ancillary copyright for news could lead to a similar stand-off between print publishers and web search engines.
YouTube users in German regularly encounter a notice that the streaming service cannot show the requested music clip because of a continuing dispute with Gema, and Google says the same thing might happen to German Google News users because it would be forced on cost grounds to stop posting news links and article snippets.
"The law would hit every internet user in the country as searching for and finding information will be severely disrupted," Google said. "This kind of interference with the internet is not what the system is about and is unprecedented globally."
The initiative is controversial even in Germany and some lawmakers from Ms Merkel's coalition of Christian Democrats and Free Democrats openly oppose it.
Jimmy Schulz, a Free Democrat who runs a tech company, says print publishers profit from the readers the search engines route their way. "This law is like asking a fine-dining guide to pay for the privilege of listing a restaurant." Print publishers had "slept through" the internet revolution, he said. "I will not now back this bill."
There are other tech-savvy MPs who oppose the initiative, although not enough to seriously threaten passage of the bill. Nonetheless, opponents have the chance to push for changes in committee. A public hearing looks set to take place in early 2013.
But publishers plan to keep the pressure on the coalition to get measures passed for which they have been campaigning since early 2009. "The increasing danger for a free press is palpable," the association of newspaper publisher said, noting that between 2000 and 2009 German newspaper revenues fell 20 per cent to €11bn.
Nonetheless, even supporters warn the industry not to expect salvation from the new power to demand royalties. "We're not opening a pot of gold which will pour forth riches," said Sabine Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger, justice minister.
When the new regime comes into force, probably next summer, the government hopes publishers will demand moderate royalties. It also hopes they will band together and collect royalties on a lump-sum basis, to keep bureaucracy down.
Given all this, Mr Krings and other lawmakers deem Google's threats sabre-rattling. "If it were to leave the German [news] market, it'd have to leave France next, and then maybe the whole of Europe," he said. "Then again, if it did block German content, it would give us the chance to build up a domestic rival to Google."