German legislation could hinder free flow of information

Germany’s draft ancillary copyright bill would force news aggregators such as Google News to pay German publishing houses when linking to news items produced by their newspapers, writes Maximilian Ruhenstroth-Bauer.

The case

On 5 March 2012, Germany’s ruling coalition agreed to introduce the draft ancillary copyright bill that would force news aggregators such as Google News, or perlentaucher.de in Germany, to pay German publishing houses when linking to news items generated by their newspapers. Widely suspected to be the result of publishers’ lobbying, the rationale behind the initiative is that publishers have a right to be paid for the content they assemble and provide. It is important to note that what the new law would protect is not the content of articles, which is already protected under copyright law. Rather, it would prohibit others from linking to those articles using snippets.

The proposal has come under harsh criticism from all sides. While most observers criticised the publishers for trying to secure income through dubious state intervention rather than adapting to the changing rules of the internet age, some critics have warned that the new law might come into conflict with the right to information guaranteed by the German constitution. They have argued that if bits of information (single sentences or headlines) come to be regarded as goods to be protected, the free circulation of information could be jeopardised.

Author opinion

The proposed law is a prime example of inept legislation. Google only links to the content the publishers have put online for free, and in so doing has generated huge amounts of traffic for the newspapers’ websites. Now the publishers want Google to pay for linking to their pages. As one commentator put it, a comparison would be if restaurants charged taxi drivers for bringing customers to their doors.

Apart from the considerable short-sightedness involved in the reasoning behind this law, it could also be dangerous for the free exchange of information. Imposing ill-conceived regulation on the flow of information online is at best an obstacle to innovation, and at worst risks coming into conflict with the constitution.

- Maximilian Ruhenstroth-Bauer

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Free Speech Debate is a research project of the Dahrendorf Programme for the Study of Freedom at St Antony's College in the University of Oxford. www.freespeechdebate.ox.ac.uk

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