Wednesday, March 23, 2005

Agence France-Presse has filed a lawsuit against search engine giant Google Inc., accusing the company of reproducing and displaying copyrighted story leads, headlines and graphics on its news site without the international news service’s permission.

The case could affect the way Web sites that display content published by other news organizations, such as the Drudge Report, which posts verbatim headlines written by other news outlets, can display information on their sites.

According to the complaint filed Thursday in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, Google News has illegally posted thousands of the news service’s headlines, story leads and photographs since the site was started in 2002.

Google News ( is separate from Google’s search engine.

Google began removing content published by the Paris-based news agency shortly after the complaint was filed, said company spokesman Steven Langdon.

“We allow publishers to opt out of Google News,” said Mr. Langdon, who would not disclose when the company would issue a formal legal response. “Most publishers, however, want to be included in Google News because they believe it is a benefit to them and their readers.”

By law, Google has 20 days from the time the complaint was registered to file a response in court.

The news service also filed suit against Google in France three weeks ago, but has no plans to sue the company in any other country, said news service attorney Joshua Kaufman.

In its U.S. suit, the news service is seeking at least $17.5 million in damages and an injunction against Google to immediately stop the display of the news service’s stories on Google News.

At stake is the way certain news-collection Web sites and search engines can display news content, said lawyer Scott Spooner, who specializes in trademark and copyright law.

Certain Web logs, or blogs, could be forced to change how they display news stories published by another entity, he said. However, the effect on Web sites depends on how much content they display.

“It is impossible to cite some bright line use that this is fair use and this crosses the line,” Mr. Spooner said.

AFP says Google News is impeding the market value for its news content because the site is posting the most significant portions of the news stories — the headlines, leads and photographs — without paying for it.

“If you go on Google News, it’s like a newspaper,” Mr. Kaufman said. “There are news stories and pictures. Google News is not a search engine. Google News is a news aggregator.”

Agence France-Presse, which has bureaus worldwide, including in Washington, charges its customers for access to its news stories and photographs. The news service contends that Google News does not have the right to display the service’s headlines, story leads or photographs.

“When Defendant produces and displays AFP’s photographs, headlines and story leads it removes AFP’s copyright management information found at the original source,” the complaint states.

AFP also asserts that Google has ignored requests to “cease and desist from infringing its copyrights in its works.”

The news service has not decided whether it will seek actual damages — the amount of money it thinks it has lost as a result of Google News posting news content — or statutory damages, which would allow it to seek up to $150,000 for every instance in which the company used AFP’s news and graphics unlawfully, Mr. Kaufman said.

Google may respond by saying its reproduction and display of the news content is a form of fair use, as outlined in the U.S. Copyright Law used to determine whether infringement has occurred, Mr. Spooner said.

“Fair use is all about degree,” he said. “A slight use is permissible. The more and more I borrow, the greater the likelihood that my fair use defense will” not hold up.

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