German Bundestag adopts controversial online copyright bill

The bill was altered this week and has become less damaging, Google said

The German Bundestag has adopted a controversial, but weakened, online copyright bill that gives publishers the exclusive right to make commercial use of their publications on the Internet.

The bill aims to protect publishers against systematic access to copyrighted content by search engine providers like Google and other services such as news aggregators.

The Bundestag, the lower house of Germany's legislature, adopted the bill on Friday, by 293 votes to 243 with 3 abstentions. To become law, the bill still needs the approval of state government delegates in Germany's upper house, the Bundesrat, a Bundestag spokesman said.

The bill initially aimed to stop search engines from reproducing headlines and parts of news articles without the publishers consent, only allowing them to republish news snippets with permission or a paid license from the publishers. However, it was changed by a legislative committee earlier this week, making it unclear what its impact will be if it becomes law.

The bill now states that publishers have the exclusive right to commercialize their products or parts thereof, except in the case of single words or very small text snippets.

In the debate prior to the vote, Tabea RAPAner, Bundestag representative for the Green party, part of the opposition, warned that in the current form the new copyright bill would become the "lawyer's favorite." Because the text is unclear, the courts will probably have to handle many cases concerning it in the future, she said.

Thomas Silberhorn, a member of ruling coalition party CSU, however disagreed and said that the bill is clear enough and that there won't be a wave of legal threats or lawsuits.

While the changed and adopted bill was criticized for not being clear enough, it was seen as a positive development by Google.

"As a result of today's vote, ancillary copyright in its most damaging form has been stopped," said a Google spokesman in an emailed statement. "However, the best outcome for Germany would be no new legislation because it threatens innovation, particularly for start-ups. It's also not necessary because publishers and Internet companies can innovate together, just as Google has done in many other countries."

The bill's creation of a new intellectual property right for publishers will close a legal loophole, said the Federation of German Newspaper Publishers (BDZV) and the Association of German Magazine Publishers (VDZ) said in a joint news release. Even if the adopted text did not consider all ideas, the resulting bill is an important element of a fair legal framework for the digital world, they said.

It will allow publishers to determine the conditions under which search engines and content aggregators use their content, they said. The search engines won't have an automatic right to republish content under the new rule, and it is rather open to publishers to make the business decision about what search engines and aggregators can do with their content if they wish to use it commercially, they said.

With the new bill the publishers will be given a "fair instrument" to decide what search engines and aggregators can do with the publishers' content, they said. "This is a real signal of the parliament, which underscores the value of a free press and journalistic content," they said.

Loek is Amsterdam Correspondent and covers online privacy, intellectual property, open-source and online payment issues for the IDG News Service. Follow him on Twitter at @loekessers or email tips and comments to loek_essers@idg.com

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