It’s always perplexed me — why search engines aren’t paying publishers and other content sites access fees in order to gain permission to crawl them. Instead, content providers kowtow to search engines and pay third-party firms to perform search engine optimization (SEO) work. Maybe we all drank the Flavor Aid back in the heyday of Web hysteria. Maybe we bought the “we’ll bring you traffic” story — a story that has proven true but insufficiently compelling. Whatever the reason, a potential licensing opportunity bulldozed right over publishers.
Now, the German government is planning on a more level-headed approach, according to a recent New York Times article. Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union is planning to introduce legislation soon that would force search engines to pay fees. German publishers have been agitating for this for years. According to the story:
Under the proposal, Internet aggregators and search engines would have to pay the publishers if they wanted to display all or parts of their articles — even small snippets like those that are shown in search links.
The proposal postulates a central fee-collection organization — such as what ASCAP does for music — which would collect on behalf of publishers and disburse the fees proportionately. Interestingly, the proposal will likely include a one-year embargo, after which certain pieces can be displayed at no charge.
On its surface, this proposal makes a lot of sense. In STM publishing in particular, aggregators are common, and contracts with them are the norm. Aggregators build businesses on top of publishers and across publishers in ways publishers cannot quite do so themselves, often adding custom search services on top. The licensing arrangements that facilitate aggregation are on the upswing in many areas.
It also creates the opportunity to reassess how valuable various content pieces are. In the realm of printed books and CD-ROM software, including titles and abstracts at no cost to the likes of MEDLINE made a lot of sense. After all, you wanted a researcher to have a good idea of what they might find in the stacks before they walked down the hall or to the library. Now, with everything a click away, does the value of the title, the abstract, or the summary change? Should NCBI be paying publishers for their most condensed, most fussed over content (titles and abstracts)?
This will be an interesting piece of legislation to follow once it’s introduced. Will it change the game outside of Germany? Will US publishers begin to rouse themselves in a similar manner?