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Big Tech back on the hook in French copyright spat

Politicians including Macron have renewed their support to press publishers.

Politicians including Macron have renewed their support to press publishers.

France’s years-long copyright dispute is heating up again. 

After a détente of sorts before the holiday break, tensions have risen again between U.S. tech giants and the press industry over payment for news. And following months of technical discussions in the corridors of the country’s competition authority, the spat has taken a political turn.

French magazines have launched a fresh offensive against Google to get them to sign licensing deals — and the French president has their back.

One day after they lodged a new complaint before the competition watchdog, Macron pledged to go after online platforms again if they refuse to pay for news. Less than 24 hours later, lawmakers also released a report accusing tech companies of not abiding by the rules. 

This trend could jeopardize Google’s willingness to “open a new chapter in the field of neighboring rights,” as the U.S. tech giant itself put it before the holiday break, and could also spell trouble for Facebook, Twitter and Microsoft’s LinkedIn — the other platforms on the press publishers’ and the politicians’ radar. (Axel Springer, POLITICO Europe’s owner, is an active participant in the debate.)

France is the first country to have implemented the EU’s copyright reform, which grants press publishers a right to ask for payment when their content is displayed on online platforms — making it both a laboratory and a trend-setter for the rest of the bloc. 

The competition authority got involved after complaints from press publishers that Google did not negotiate in “good faith,” which led over the summer to a €500 million fine. The watchdog will decide in the coming months whether to pursue the case on the grounds of alleged abuse of Google’s dominant position. 

Google France Director General Sébastien Missoffe said in a statement that the company’s “objective remains the same: cover press agencies and publishers’ neighboring rights under the French law. Negotiations are ongoing and most of them are moving forward positively.”

Political pressure

Ahead of his annual address to the press corps Tuesday, Macron met with Jean-Marie Cavada, a former MEP and staunch Big Tech opponent who co-drafted the EU’s copyright reform and is now president of a collecting society for press publishers.

“The competition authority slapped [Google] with a €500 million fine. That’s a great victory but there is still a long way to go … We will add to, if necessary, our French and European texts,” Macron said in his speech, opening the door for the first time to new rules after his government last year opposed French senators’ attempts to beef up the neighboring rights. 

The president’s support did not fall on deaf ears. Three representatives for press publishers who spoke on condition of anonymity said that the “political pressure” on tech companies was “positive,” and Macron’s speech was the strongest sign of support by the executive power in a long time. 

“What we found interesting is that Macron was quite aggressive about the idea of strengthening the law,” one of them said.

More than two years after the neighboring rights for press publishers became law in France — and despite licensing deals signed in the meantime with leading media organizations — a National Assembly fact-finding mission also concluded this week that the copyright rules are still not properly applied by tech giants. 

While the report’s legislative impact is limited — there is little chance for the recommendations to be enshrined in legislation before the April presidential election — MPs have made their political message clear: We’re supporting the press against tech. 

Complaints and commitments 

The year had ended on a more positive note between online platforms and the press industry, after months of legal fights and tense negotiations. 

In October, Facebook brokered a licensing agreement with the trade association that represents leading newspapers such as Le Monde; that same body is currently renegotiating its contract with Google. The search giant also announced in November a five-year licensing deal with Agence France-Presse. Both Google and Facebook have signed individual deals with outlets such as Le Monde and Le Figaro. 

Before the holiday break, Google also presented commitments to the French competition authority — in a bid to appease relations with the press industry, but also to avoid further investigation on alleged abuse of dominant position. The U.S. tech company pledged to negotiate in good faith and communicate information for press publishers to assess the remuneration offered, among others. 

Google’s Sébastien Missoffe said that his company’s commitments “reflect the authority’s decision, and are in line with some proposals included in the parliamentary report.”

The press industry has until January 31 to provide feedback, the competition authority will then decide whether or not to close the case. 

The press publishers’ collecting society, which represents magazines but not daily publications, has already warned it wasn’t impressed by Google’s pledges. 

“The first commitment should be to respect the law,” the collecting society’s president Jean-Marie Cavada said, “this is not serious.” 

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