A Snippet of Common Sense

Over the years, Internet users have grown accustomed to the convenience of small excerpts, or “snippets,” of content that appear as part of search results. The role of these granular samplings of text is pretty straightforward: to give users an idea how their search terms appear in the documents and links that come up in the search.

These snippets – often just a handful of words – are particularly helpful when searching for news items, books, research reports and other copyrighted work. But aside from the stray haiku enthusiast, few would view these snippets as useful in and of themselves, but rather as signposts leading users to click the links that best match what they’re looking for.

While this may seem like common sense, rightsholder-backed legislation is nonetheless underway in Germany to extend copyright protections to snippets of news items, not just the published works they’re drawn from. Anyone who values access to information and legal clarity around copyright issues should pay close attention.

In August 2012, the German federal government introduced a draft revision of its national Copyright Act granting ancillary protections for news publishers. The measure could pass before the end of this year and would extend copyright protections to even brief news snippets, with publishers charging fees to news aggregators and web search engines who display the snippets.

Critics point to several problems with this so-called “snippet tax” or “quotation tax,” starting with concerns by groups like the Max Planck Institute and the European Network for Copyright in Support of Education and Science that press diversity would suffer in an environment where only the largest players in publishing and online search could contend with the administrative burden that would come with such regulation. The economic objections are, in fact, so broad as to draw opposition from the Federation of German Industries (BDI), which represents roughly 100,000 German companies and their eight million employees.

Then there are the legal obstacles that could put the measure in conflict with the Berne Convention and related international treaty commitments designed to limit nations from granting rights over news items and other factual content and ideas.

Supporters’ claims that fellow journalists, along with bloggers and other private Internet users, would be exempted from these strictures don’t seem to mollify critics; and they appear to ignore the reality of today’s online environment, where users draw information from a variety of sources to build their own customized information feed. This open marketplace of ideas could change drastically if copyright maximalists get their way in the Germany.