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.


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.


Seminymous Coward

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

Enter your name...

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

Bryan S.

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?


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.

Enter your name...

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.


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.


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.


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.


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.

Doug Laney

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.

Jeremy Fort

"Google (...) should pay them for links"

This is a perfect example of an old industry being disrupted by a new technology they don't understand...
IMHO it makes absolutely no sense.


I certainly hope that they also start going after all those PhD's who are citing other researchers in their papers. Or book reviewers who quote a sentence or two from a work. Or movie reviewers/entertainment shows that run clips of movies...

Eric M. Jones.

Any deal seems unlikely. If the newspapers vanished, Google would be unaffected. If Google vanished the newspapers would still collapse.


Well if there are no newspaper to index in Europe, there is no point having a Google news service and Google looses a business opportunity....


Why don't we give it to them and show them how bad what they're proposing actually is? This parallels the cookies ruling, a ruling that was made by people who also were very technologically illiterate. Nobody wanted the cookies law in Europe, but it was put into effect, and people saw how bad it was.

Well, Google should show them how bad this proposed law is. If Google is forced to pay for links, then Google should just drop those links altogether. That is sure to hurt the newspapers' traffic, and cost them much, much more than they imagine it costs them not getting money from Google for those links. Maybe then they'll realize just how much value Google is giving them already.


Well, let´s hope we could remember all the european newspapers. Nowadays, I think it´s hard to find someone who reads 4 to 5 of these newspaper. If google pays...well... We´ll just have to find the newspapers that would like to appear on Google by free.

Doug Laney

Are Europeans and Brazilians allowed to browse headlines on news stands without getting sued by publishers?


The current model only seems to work because of Google's dominance in the search market. Let's say that Google stops the links in response to the actions of the content publishers. But then, assuming the content has value to people and they will still want to consume it, another search engine like Bing(?) might be willing to pay a portion of ad revenues for the privilege of linking to it. Thereby undercutting Google's revenue stream and therefore it's market dominance. This is how markets work; gains and losses in the 'trenches.' It seems to me that the battle here will reveal two things: How valuable is the content being published and how dominant Google is.


It's this kind of something-for-nothing attitude that got Greece where it is today. That's fine. Doesn't affect me too profoundly. But don't you dare touch my Google.