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Getty accuses Google of ‘promoting piracy’

Google faces a new threat in its rapidly expanding antitrust battle with the EU after Getty Images, the US photo agency, complained that the search giant was unfairly undermining its business.

Getty said that it would file a formal complaint in Brussels on Wednesday, arguing that Google was trying to freeride on the business of photojournalism without generating the content itself.

More specifically, Getty accused Google Images of harvesting its photographs in a way that siphoned traffic away from Getty's paid-for website.

Margrethe Vestager, EU competition commissioner, has already issued two sets of charges against Google — accusing it of abusing its dominance of web search to promote its own shopping services, and of abusing dominance of its Android operating system to lock customers into using Google apps.

The Getty complaint broaches a third area of concern known as "scraping" — where Google is accused of using content generated by rivals to promote its own services. Some of Google's most vocal critics are travel websites, which have accused the group of culling hotel and restaurant reviews and using them to bolster the quality of Google's own travel services.

The complaint means that the European Commission will have to form a view on whether it believes competition rules have been broken. Google declined to comment specifically on the case but, more broadly, denies having broken any antitrust rules.

The previous commission decided against proceeding with charges on scraping against Google. However, several lawyers opposing Google said they had received signals from the commission that it was becoming more receptive in light of other complaints and the fast-changing digital landscape.

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In its complaint, Getty argues that Google abused its dominance of image searches to change "drastically" the way that it presented Getty's photographs after January 2013, by displaying them in a high resolution and large format. Before that date, they had only been shown in image searches as low-resolution thumbnails.

Yoko Miyashita, Getty's general counsel, argued that this new display diverted customers away from her company's website, where customers would pay for them, and deterred customers from ever leaving Google's platforms.

She said this "promoted piracy, resulting in widespread copyright infringement, turning users into accidental pirates".

Getty said that it raised its concerns with Google three years ago but Google had replied that Getty should either accept its new presentation of images or opt out of image search, in effect becoming invisible on the web.

Ms Miyashita said this was not a "viable choice" given the importance of Google to navigating the internet.

Getty added that Google was threatening the livelihoods of 200,000 contributors who relied on the company's business model to make a living. "By standing in the way of a fair market place for images, Google is threatening innovation and jeopardizing artists' ability to fund the creation of important future works," Ms Miyashita said.

Getty said its web traffic collapsed immediately in 2013 after the changes implemented by google.com and google.co.uk. However, traffic remained robust on the French and German Google sites, which did not implement the display changes in January 2013.

Several news organisations are worried that Google is scraping their content, with lawyers suggesting it is easier to bypass paywalls when articles are viewed on a Google platform. The editors complain that Google has become the main portal for accessing their content, rather their own websites. News Corp, owner of the Wall Street Journal, filed a complaint last week.