Google inks agreement in France on paying publishers for news reuse

Natasha Lomas
·9 min read
PARIS, FRANCE - MAY 24: A Google logo is displayed during the Viva Technologie show at Parc des Expositions Porte de Versailles on May 24, 2018 in Paris, France. Viva Technology, the new international event brings together 5,000 startups with top investors, companies to grow businesses and all players in the digital transformation who shape the future of the internet. (Photo by Chesnot/Getty Images)

Google has reached an agreement with an association of French publishers over how it will be pay for reuse of snippets of their content. This is a result of application of a ‘neighbouring right’ for news which was transposed into national law following a pan-EU copyright reform agreed back in 2019.

The tech giant had sought to evade paying French publishers for reuse of snippets of content in its news aggregation and search products by no longer displaying them in the country.

But in April last year the French competition watchdog (FCA) quashed its attempt to avoid payments, using an urgent procedure known as interim measures -- deeming Google's unilateral withdrawal of snippets to be unfair and damaging to the press sector, and likely to constitute an abuse of a dominant market position.

A few months later Google lost an appeal against the watchdog's injunction ordering it to negotiate with publishers over reuse of content -- leaving it little choice but to sit at the table with French newspapers and talk payment.

L’Alliance de la Presse d’Information Générale (APIG), which represents the interests of around 300 political and general information press titles in France, announced the framework agreement today, writing that it sets the terms of negotiation with its members for Google's reuse of their content.

In a statement, Pierre Louette, CEO of Groupe Les Echos - Le Parisien, and president of L'Alliance, said: "After long months of negotiations, this agreement is an important milestone, which marks the effective recognition of the neighboring rights of press publishers and the beginning of their remuneration by digital platforms for the use of their online publications."

Google has also put out a blog post -- lauding what it said is a "major step forward" after months of negotiations with French publishers.

The agreement "establishes a framework within which Google will negotiate individual licensing agreements with IPG certified publishers within APIG’s membership, while reflecting the principles of the law", it said.

IPG certification refers to a status that online media organizations in France can gain if they meet certain quality standards, such as having at least one professional journalist on staff and having a main purpose of creating permanent and continuous content that provides political and general information of interest to a wide and varied audience.

"These agreements will cover publishers’ neighboring rights, and allow for participation in News Showcase, a new licencing program recently launched by Google to provide readers access to enriched content," Google added, making reference to a news partnership program it announced last year -- which it said would have an initial $1BN investment.

Google has not confirmed how much money will be distributed to publishers in France solely under the agreed framework over content reuse which is directly linked to the neighbouring right.

And the News Showcase program which Google spun up quickly last year looks conveniently designed to help it obfuscate the value of individual payments it may be legally required to make to publishers for reusing their content.

The tech giant told us it is in conversations with publishers in many countries to negotiate agreements for News Showcase -- a program that is not limited to the EU.

It also said earlier investments announced with publishers under Showcase come as it anticipates legal regimes that may exist once the EU's copyright directive is implemented in other countries, adding that it will evaluate laws as and when they are introduced.

(NB: France was among the first EU countries to the punch to transpose the copyright directive; application of the neighbouring right will expand across the bloc as other Member States bake the directive into national law.)

On the French agreements specifically, Google said they are for its News Showcase but are also inclusive of the publisher's neighboring rights, after we asked about the separation between payments that will be made under the French framework and Google's News Showcase. So about as clear as mud, then.

The tech giant did tell us it has reached individual agreements with a handful of French publishers so far, including (major national newspaper titles) Le Monde, Le Figaro and Libération.

It added that payments will go direct to publishers and terms will not be disclosed -- noting they are strictly confidential. It also said these individual deals with publishers take account of the neighbouring right framework but also reflect individual publisher needs and differences.

On criteria for payments for neighbouring rights, Google's blog post states: "The remuneration that is included in these licensing agreements is based on criteria such as the publisher’s contribution to political and general information (IPG certified publishers), the daily volume of publications, and its monthly internet traffic."

On this, Google also told us it is focused on IPG publishers because the French law is too (it pointed to a line of the law that states: “The amount of this remuneration takes into account elements such as human, material and financial investments made by publishers and press agencies, the contribution to press publications to political and general information and the importance of use of press publications by online public communication services.”)

But it added that its door remains open to discussion with other non APIG publishers.

The tech giant was also keen to emphasize that French law and the EU copyright directive do not require consent for the use of links or "very short extracts", adding that it's paying for online use on its surfaces for publisher content that goes beyond links and very short extracts -- such as a News Showcase panel curated by the publisher.

"We are paying for content beyond links and very short extracts," the tech giant also told us.

We also reached out to L'Alliance with questions. A spokesman for the group told us the agreement covers around 120+ of its publisher members at present but noted that figure is likely to evolve. He also confirmed all IPG certified publishers are eligible.

On the extent of the neighbouring rights' coverage the spokesman said snippets displayed in Google News would clearly not fall under the exception for “isolated words or very short extracts” -- pointing out that the directive also states the exception should not be interpreted in a way that impacts the effectiveness of neighboring rights.

The task of assessing whether or criteria is being fulfilled will be undertaken jointly by the Alliance and publishers, per the spokesman, who noted that the withdrawal of its complaint in front of the FCA is conditional upon this check for 30 publishers.

Payments will commence once the complaint is settled and Showcase is launched, he added, without providing a timeframe.

While individual payments to publishers under the French framework are not being disclosed the agreement looks like a major win for Europe's press sector -- which had lobbied extensively to extend copyright to news snippets via the EU's controversial copyright reform.

Some individual EU Member States -- including Germany and Spain -- previously attempted to get Google to pay publishers by baking similar copyright provisions into national law. But in those instances Google either forced publishers to give it their snippets for free (by playing traffic-hungry publishers off against each other) or shut down Google News entirely. So some payment is clearly better than nada.

That said, with details of the terms of individual deals not disclosed -- and no clarity over exactly how remunerations will be calculated -- there's a lot that remains murky over Google paying for news reuse.

Neither Google nor L'Alliance have said how much money will be distributed in total under the French agreement to covered publishers, for example.

Another issue we're curious about is how the framework will protect publishers from changes to Google's search algorithms that could have a negative impact on traffic to their sites.

This seems important given that monthly traffic is one of the criteria being used to determine payment. (And it's not hard to find examples of such negative search 'blips'.)

However, according to the Alliance's spokesman, Google has committed to a certain level of remuneration for the duration of the agreement (three years). As a result he said it did not believe traffic and changes in algorithms would be an issue for the payment arrangement.

He also pointed out the FCA is still investigating Google over complaints of a dominant position -- noting other organizations also filed a complaint, so even when the publishing group withdraws its own there's grounds for that investigation to continue.

Still, it looks clear that the more publishers Google can attract into its 'News Showcase' program, the more options Google will have for displaying news snippets in its products -- and therefore at a price it has more power to set. So the longer term impact of the application of the EU's copyright directive on publisher revenues -- and, indeed, how it might influence the quality of online journalism that Google accelerates into Internet users' eyeballs -- remains to be seen.

As noted above, the French competition watchdog's investigation is ongoing -- and Google told us it continues to engage with that probe -- so its business practices remain under continued and close scrutiny, limiting its operational wiggle room for now.

In a separate intervention in 2019 the national watchdog slapped Google with a €150 million fine for abusing its dominant position in the online search advertising market -- sanctioning it for “opaque and difficult to understand” operating rules for its ad platform, Google Ads, and for applying them in “an unfair and random manner.”

While, last October, the US Justice Department filed an antitrust suit against Google -- alleging that the company is “unlawfully maintaining monopolies in the markets for general search services, search advertising, and general search text advertising".

The UK's competition watchdog has also raised concerns about the ad market dominance of Google and Facebook, asking for views on breaking up Google back in 2019. The UK government has since said it will establish a pro-competition regulator to put limits on big tech.

This report was updated with additional information and an on the record comment from Google, as well as additional information from L'Alliance