Google lost its case (SearchEnglineLand) to Copiepress in Belgium. Simon Waldman calls it only a small earthquake. Mathew Ingram says he just doesn't get the whole thing and calls the Copiepress move "stupid, stupid, stupid". Ars Technica says that "everyone except Google loses".
I think this is a big deal, and on balance a win for the Belgian press, and I'll try to explain why.
First, if you haven't read it before pop over to Terry Heaton's blog and read his Mr and Mrs Media allegory. See how before the web newspapers were Mrs Media? See how they have let Google become Mrs Media, taking on instead the role of Mr Media for themselves? OK.
It doesn't end there.
As news has moved online, newspapers (and other content originators) have found themselves bumped down the value chain, from the position of Mrs Media to the position of Mr Media. The position in the value chain that used to be occupied by newspapers or local TV stations has been taken by search and aggregation platforms - Google News, Yahoo!, Live, Netvibes, Bloglines - that are now the first point of contact for many news consumers. (See, if you haven't, Jonathan Dube's stats on the most popular online news destinations for the evidence.)
This creates commercial problems for newspapers, because the value of newspapers isn't, and never has been, a function of the content they create. It has always been a function of owning the relationship with the reader.
How can we prove this? Easily. Vin Crosbie shows, for example, that (US) print newspapers make between 20 and 100 times more revenue per reader than their accompanying websites. That moving the content of newspapers online has not moved the value of those newspapers with it is an elementary disproof of the fallacy that newspaper content is the source of newspaper value. Vin again, writing in OJR a couple of years earlier
"The core connection between a newspaper and its readers isn't its newsprint, its local or national news, editorials, columnists, opinions, cartoons or its classified or display ads. No, a newspaper's routine - automatic and intact daily delivery of everything that the reader should want to know on that day - is the core connection."
As newspapers moved online, they moved the wrong aspect of themselves online - the content, not the "intact daily delivery" that made them the gateway between reader and advertiser. This strategic mishap allowed Google (and other aggregators, but really it always comes back to Google) to push them down the value chain, so that Google (etc) became instead the source of "automatic and intact daily delivery of everything that the reader should want to know on that day".
Now, Copiepress suing Google isn't really the right solution, but at least it's a thoughtful alternative to the model we have now in which Google acts as the distribution gateway directing traffic back to newspaper sites. Monetising readers back at a central site - or exchanging long-term consumer relationships for short-term traffic - is already leaving most of the value on Google's side of the table, and is doomed to become a diminishingly effective strategy itself as the web widgetises and page views become less relevant.
Why does literally just forking over market power to aggregators look like a good idea to news producers? Perhaps because so much media has exploded in the digital revolution, newspapers have drawn the lesson that they must explode too. Digital has exploded music, so that where people used to buy CDs they buy single tracks from iTunes. P2P has exploded films and TV, so that film companies are distributing film and TV content either with unskippable, embedded ads or on a paid-content model. The crucial difference here, though, is that the fragments of media that are sold by music, film and TV companies via aggregation partnerships contain inherent commercial upsides embedded within the packets themselves - the unskippable ad or the iTunes charge. News articles on Yahoo! news or Moreover or Google News or Topix contain no such inherent commercial upside for the content originator. The analogy with the explosion of film, music and TV breaks down when looked at from a commercial or strategic angle. An EMI song song on iTunes makes money for EMI. A New York Times article read on Google News does not provide a comparable return for the New York Times.
For an equivalent to the explosion in entertainment media, news content needs some inherent commercial upside embedded within every packet. That is, I hypothesise, what Copiepresse was going for in its case against Google. Again, it's not the ideal solution. I don't know what is. Perhaps a universal, seamless, content nonopayment system. Perhaps tiny ads in every article. (Didn't laugh there? Then I'm not entirely joking.) A viable solution will clearly require a concerted and united effort on the part of news publishers. With the possible exception of ACAP, which has its own issues, the Copiepress case is the most forthright attempt I've seen so far along those lines to acknowledge that the status quo is broken. In the event, the move hasn't radically redrawn the strategic balance between the creators of news content packets and the new gateways to that news. But it was a good try, an acknowledgment at least of the problem, and a hint to the direction in which a solution might ultimately be found.