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Google to newspapers: Put up or shut up

July 16, 2009 |  1:13 pm
Newspapers in a Cafe
Newspapers in a Vienna coffeehouse. Credit: Alex Barth via Flickr.

Is Google stealing our content? That, anyway, seemed to be the suggestion when a European publishing group announced last week that it had garnered a number of supporters for its Hamburg Declaration, which calls for "urgent improvements in the protection of intellectual property on the Internet."

This week, Google had a reply, which basically boils down to: Put up or shut up.

In a post written by Josh Cohen, senior business product manager, on the company's public policy blog Wednesday afternoon, Google said publishers can easily tell search engines to take a hike. All it takes is a two-line piece of code, which he helpfully included in his post. Tuck that on your website, and no search engine will crawl it; the stories won't show up when people look for content using search engines.

It's unlikely that newspapers will call Google's bluff. Here's why: Google's search engine and its Google News site sends 1 billion visits to newspaper websites each month. Those visitors drive up the traffic numbers that website ad rates are partially based on. More readers = higher ad rates, which is why few publishers will say no to Google's traffic referrals.

Granted, most of those readers don't pay for the stories they read. And that leads to statements like this one from the Hamburg protocol, which was signed by James Murdoch of News Corp., Robert Thomson of the Wall Street Journal and Ian Smith of Reed Elsevier, among others:

Numerous providers are using the work of authors, publishers and broadcasters without paying for it. Over the long term, this threatens the production of high-quality content and the existence of independent journalism.

Sam Zell, whose Tribune Co. owns the Los Angeles Times, has said much the same thing, if only in more colorful terms. "If all of the newspapers in America did not allow Google to steal their content, how profitable would Google be?" he told a group of incredulous Stanford University students in 2007.

Google's retort to publishers is that it is open to work with them on whatever business model they deem fit. Want only paid subscribers to read? Fine, it can steer clear of the site, or follow a model like that of the Wall Street Journal, which lets readers referred from search engines see the article for free but makes them subscribe if they want to read any other articles on the site. Want the articles to expire after a few days and go into an archive where readers would have to pay to see? There's a line of code for that too.

Right now, the vast majority of newspaper sites serve up free, ad-supported content. And Google said it's happy to send traffic to those sites. Unless, of course, they don't want all those readers.

-- Alex Pham

Follow my random thoughts on games, gear and technology on Twitter @AlexPham.

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