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German publishing giant Axel Springer caves in over Google news snippets row

Could the long-running battle between the publishing giant and the search engine finally be at an end?

German publisher Axel Springer has withdrawn its demand that Google pay to publish news snippets from its publications, in the latest twist to the scuffle over copyright fees.

Under a new 'free license', Axel Springer is allowing Google to display portions of text from news stories published by four of its sites: welt.de, computerbild.de, sportbild.de, and autobild.de.

The move by the German publishing giant follows a standoff over Germany's ancillary copyright law which Axel Springer argued enabled it to demand licensing fees from search engines like Google for republishing portions of a story. Google has maintained that its service benefits publishers and so it should not have to pay a fee.

In June, fee-collecting body VG Media - a consortium of publishers including Axel Springer - sued Google over the issue. Google responded in October by halting its indexing of news snippets and thumbnails of VG Media content, instead only displaying headlines. At the time, VG Media said it was being blackmailed by Google.

Announcing the free license for Google yesterday, Axel Springer said that traffic to the sites had declined by nearly 40 percent since Google stopped producing snippets and thumbnails on October 23. It also claimed that traffic to the German sites from Google News was down by almost 80 percent.

Withholding the free license was part of the publisher's plan to demonstrate what it sees as Google abusing its dominant power to force publishers into licensing their content for free. As Axel Springer noted, its aim was to "document the effects of the downgrading of search results as part of ongoing legal proceedings to enforce the existing press ancillary copyright law".

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Axel Springer was one of the primary forces lobbying for the ancillary copyright bill , which came into effect on August 1 last year. What hasn't been clear is whether the bill granted the German publisher a right to demand fees, which Google has never paid.

At its quarterly earnings update yesterday, the publisher's CEO Dr Mathias Döpfner called the move "the most successful failure we have ever experienced".

"As sad as it is, we now know very precisely just how far-reaching the consequences of the discrimination are, as well as the real effects of Google's market power and how Google punishes everyone who exercises a right that has been granted to them by the German Bundestag."

Google yesterday welcomed the changed stance from Axel Springer. "It's great to have snippets for Springer’s publications back in Google," the company said in a statement to the Wall Street Journal. "We send over 500 million clicks to German publishers each month and our advertising partnerships have generated more than €1bn [$1.25bn] in revenue for them in the last three years," the company added.

The battle over copyright is likely far from over, however. Incoming digital chief for the European Commission, Günther Oettinger, last week suggested Google be slugged with a copyright tax if it uses European intellectual property.

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