It had the makings of a high-tension face-off: Google chief executive Eric Schmidt spoke on Tuesday at a convention of newspaper executives at a time when a growing chorus in the struggling industry was accusing Google of succeeding, in part, at their expense.
Any open controversy reverberated little more than a soggy newspaper hitting a doorstep. Schmidt’s speech closing the annual meeting of the Newspaper Association of America here was a lengthy discourse on the importance of newspapers and the challenges and opportunities brought about by technologies like mobile phones.
His speech was followed by polite questions from industry executives that only briefly touched upon a perennially sore point: whether the use of headlines and snippets of newspaper stories on Google News is “fair use” under copyright law or a misappropriation of newspaper content.
“I was surprised that the publishers really let Google off the hook,” said Jim Chisholm, a consultant with iMedia Advisory, which advises newspaper companies around the world.
“While Google News generates a lot of audience, ultimately, the question is going to be who is going to make the money out of that: Google or the publishers,” he said.
On Monday, The Associated Press (AP) said it would work to require Web sites that use the work of news organizations, including AP and its member newspapers, to obtain permission and share revenue with them.
“The ultimate resolution of all is this will be determined by how you interpret fair use,” Schmidt said of the broader debate around Google News.
But Schmidt said that he was “a little confused” by news reports that singled out Google as a target of the AP effort.
He said that Google currently licensed and hosted news stories from AP.
He did not directly address newspaper content, which the company does not license.
Google has long insisted that its use of snippets and headlines in Google News is legal. It also said Google News drove a huge amount of traffic to newspaper Web sites, which the publishers monetize through advertising.
Newspaper publishers do not want to cut off the traffic they get from Google’s search and news services and from other search engines.
It is technologically simple for any newspaper Web site to keep content off Google and Google News, but few if any newspapers have chosen to do that.
Publishers do resent that the company, which recently began showing ads on Google News, is profiting from their content.
AP has not given details about exactly how it plans to tackle the matter. Just before Schmidt’s speech, William Dean Singleton, chairman of AP and chief executive of the MediaNews Group, said: “We don’t plan for anyone to use our content unless they pay for it. The licenses we do in the future will limit how and where our content is used.”
In a meeting with reporters afterward, Schmidt said Google was unlikely to license newspaper content, as it has done with AP, even if that content was behind a pay wall.
“In a scenario where a newspaper had a subscription product, what would Google do?” he asked. “It’s highly unlikely that we would buy a subscription and give the content away free. We might be able to help the distribution of that content, but the user would have to pay.”