No stranger to the court room, Mountain View, California based Google is once again entangled in a legal debacle over its right to index and share the content of third party Web sites. This time the lawsuit has been filed by a French company, Agence France-Presse, over Google's use of both thumbnail images and snippets of text from news stories in the Google News search engine.

What makes this case different from past lawsuits involving Google's search results and cache is that AFP is suing Google over its use of syndicated content that appears on third party Web sites, not its use of content from AFP's actual site. AFP has chosen to block Google (and other engines) from indexing its site through the use of a robots.txt file. However, AFP's content is still being indexed by Google because it is being picked up from Web sites that have paid to syndicate AFP's content.

The lawsuit, which seeks at least $17.5 million in damages was filed last week in U.S. District Court in Washington D.C. Despite Google's concession to remove all AFP content from its news engine, AFP lawyer Joshua Kaufman has stated that the claimed damages have already occured and therefore, AFP plans to move the case forward. The basis of the case is copyright infringement with AFP citing the use of article blurbs and thumbnail sized images without proper compensation to AFP.

Lawyers for AFP stated that when Google refused to remove the content in question from its database after being contacted by representatives for AFP, it was decided to take the matter to court. Google claims that its use of the content is in line with "fair use" laws and that the Google news engine delivers a valuable service to news readers around the world. One might also argue that Google delivers a valuable service to news publishers by way of sending them readers that might not otherwise have visited the publisher's Web site.

The interesting part of the case is that part of AFP's reasoning for claiming copyright infringement is that it feels that Google's use of its images and text snippets damage its subscription service. In reality, the case may be the exact opposite. The Google news site, unlike the Yahoo! news site, does not include the full text of any news stories. Instead, Google finds relevant news stories and creates a page of search results in a very similar fashion to how its primary Internet search engine works. Users scan a list of news stories, click on one, and are taken to the Web site that features the news story. Thus, Google's news engine actually serves to deliver readers that AFP syndication partners may not otherwise have captured.

(For some insight on how this move has impacted AFP partners, read today's guest commentary: How AFP killed an Online News Site by Suing Google.)

How the courts will rule in this case remains to be seen, but the impact of any ruling on other Web site owners could be felt down the line. No longer just a tool of large international news agencies, content syndication through RSS feeds is a growing trend on the Internet. Along with that growth, most companies that allow the republication of their content often do so with the understanding that they may lose some measure of control over how and where that content is displayed. Allowing an article to appear on a third party Web site may serve to increase an author's name recognition, or to gain an incoming link. At the same time, content syndication can mean a loss of traffic to one's own site along with a loss of advertising revenue as readers head off to read content elsewhere.

It seems ironic that while many sites are fighting to have their feeds included in the Google new engine so that they might increase their traffic, AFP, which makes money by convincing news site of the value of paying for its syndicated content, is fighting to have their content excluded. Now, if the point was simply to have the AFP site excluded from the listings, that would be one thing. However, AFP is going to court to keep their customer's Web sites from being listed in Google news. One wonders how their customers feel about this, after all, a victory could result in less traffic to customers' Web sites.

In the end, AFP may be biting the hand that feeds it. AFP syndication partners are likely paying for AFP content in order to have news stories and photographs that will capture the interest of readers of their publications and Web sites. Having those stories excluded from the Google search engine will cause many of those publishers to lose a significant portion of their search engine traffic, which could, in turn, cost them a significant portion of their advertising revenues. Unhappy syndication partners may find themselves turning to other sources to purchase their news, thus leaving AFP out in the cold.

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March 23, 2005

Jennifer Laycock is the Editor of Search Engine Guide, the Social Media Faculty Chair for MarketMotive and offers small business social media strategy & consulting. Jennifer enjoys the challenge of finding unique and creative ways to connect with consumers without spending a fortune in marketing dollars. Though she now prefers to work with small businesses, Jennifer’s clients have included companies like Verizon, American Greetings and Highlights for Children.

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