Who Owns a Link? Google Vs. European Publishers

The New York Times published an interesting article last week about an ongoing dispute in Europe between Google and European newspapers (and their supporters in government). The issue is whether Google must pay for the privilege of linking to those sites, or should be able to link for free. Of course, at stake is who gains the revenue that comes from aggregating and compiling links.

As the Times notes:

Google got rich by selling a simple proposition: The links it provides to other Web sites are worth a lot of money, so much that millions of advertisers are willing to pay the company billions of dollars for them.

Now some European newspaper and magazine publishers, frustrated by their inability to make more of their own money from the Web, want to reverse the equation. Google, they say, should pay them for links, because they provide the material on which the Web giant is generating all that revenue.

In several of the biggest European countries, they are close to getting their way.

This raises very interesting questions of property rights. Who owns a link? And of course the value of a link is an interdependent product of the link’s creator (here, the newspaper publishers) but those that provide a pathway to the link and broadcast it, as it were, to the wider world (here, Google). A change in the current default rules has major implications for Google’s business model.

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  1. M.Berk says:

    This seems so backwards; there was once a day (and I thought it was still that day) that magazines and newspapers published their stories on their websites and were THRILLED to have Google/Google News list the article with a few lines of text for users to see. Why would the papers try to change that? Google likely won’t pay, which means the stories won’t appear in the links, which means that the paper’s website will have fewer visits, and thus facilitate the paper going bankrupt at an even faster pace than they already are.

    Further, if the papers are “angry” about Google (and MSN, and Yahoo!, and others) linking to them “for free”, then how about they just read the HTTP Referer string when someone connects and if it says “google.com” in it they show an intro page with an advert before the user sees content? Many sites are already doing this, such as tech journals and other tech-smart sites. Perhaps if they do a good enough job at this they could ditch some of the adverts that litter many news sites and make them almost unreadable for users.

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  2. Seminymous Coward says:

    I’m going to sue the Yellow Pages for royalties on my street address.

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    • Enter your name... says:

      The Yellow Pages aren’t comparable. You have to sign a contract and pay money to get listed in the Yellow Pages.

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      • Seminymous Coward says:

        A lot of telephone directories are named “Yellow Pages” or some variation, including AT&T’s US ones. I was referring to those in general and YP, a descendent of AT&T Advertising Solutions ( http://corporate.yp.com/about/ ), in particular. I was, in fact, under the impression that Yellow Pages was a trademark; this is not actually the case in the USA, though it apparently is elsewhere.

        These companies are named after one section of the books they produce, the topical business listings which are traditionally physically printed on yellow paper. This is in contrast to the blue pages listing government numbers and the white pages listing residential numbers. However, the books and online listings these companies produce still contain the other sections (e.g. http://www.yellowpages.com/whitepages ).

        I apologize for the lack of clarity; I was attempting brevity and regret sacrificing clarity to get it. The hypothetical lawsuit would be directed at the Yellow Pages corporation(s), not the yellow pages section of their listings. I have previously appeared in the predecessor of YP’s white pages, though I haven’t checked recently.

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  3. Bryan S. says:

    So let’s say that the newspapers win and now Google has to pay the publishers in order to put a link on their website when someone searches for that publisher’s name. Google drops all the newspapers from their search engine and now the newspapers lose any traffic that would have come to their site through any search engine. Which I would imagine would be most of it. Then once they realize they have no traffic at all and can’t get any ad revenue from their own site they go back to Google and say “We will let you link our site for free.” Now we are back to the original situation except that both companies have to pay lawyers to deal with the contracts of linking for free.

    Am I missing something here?

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  4. Ryan says:

    This shouldn’t even be an argument. If the publishers don’t want to be linked to, they can do that. It’s not the links that generate the revenue. These crybabies are upset that they weren’t as smart and capable as Google.

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    • Enter your name... says:

      That’s right: Google and the other reputable engines already have an opt-out system. If you don’t want Google to get rich providing links to your site, then all it takes is one little robots.txt file on your website.

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  5. MikeW says:

    Reminds me of my experience last week of trying a local hairdresser in France. The website for a French chain didn’t give phone numbers for their locations, but a single number you had to pay to call to find out the number. How much do they make off that to offset the people who say F*** that I’ll find someone else.

    A French website also cut its RSS feeds to a few features to force people to use its (vastly inferior) interface for browsing those features. I pointed out that the feed links bring people to the site, and they could be easily forgotten if they forced people to manually check and search.

    So, there’s a lot of flavours of European link paywalls, and the short-sighted would rather lose business/traffic than abandon total control.

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  6. Jeff says:

    But without the links Google provides them, they would effectively disappear from the Internet. I say let Google drop the links to these sites, and then they can wonder why their web traffic has dwindled to almost nothing.

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    • Bob says:

      You know what would be really comical, is if Google does lose this fight, chooses to drop the links rather than pay, and then the newspapers sue Google for damages from lost revenue because traffic tanked.

      Then I’ll know I’m living in some bizarro world.

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  7. Ben says:

    This is a bluff, and a very simple one to call.

    If they don’t like the arrangement, either side can pull their advertising and\or stop Google from crawling their site.

    Google is the one providing value, and will get along quite nicely without these paper pushers, who need to snap out of it and find their next job, anyhow.

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  8. Doug Laney says:

    Read the actual article cited, not Freakonomics’ micharacterization of the tiff. The argument is not about the links themselves, it’s about the snippets of text that Google displays with the link. That’s copyrighted material according to the publishers. They have a point, if only one that’s terribly ill-conceived.

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