A Belgian court has forced Google to remove all French and German language newspapers published in the country from its Google News search service.
The order comes after an association of local publishers sued the search engine giant successfully for copyright abuse, Google said Monday.
The ruling will be seen as a mostly symbolic blow to the company’s hope of indexing the world’s news sites in a comprehensive manner.
Copiepresse, an organisation that helps protect the copyright of some of Belgium’s best known newspapers including Le Soir and Le Libre Belgique, sued Google for publishing summaries of the newspapers’ stories, along with a link to the newspapers’ own sites.
The court warned Google that failure to remove all material from the Belgian newspapers from Google news from Monday would result in daily fines of around $1 million.
The case was heard on September 5 at the Belgian court of first instance but Google claims to have only found out about the court hearing and its outcome last Friday.
"We were not able to make our case directly to the judge. We are disappointed by the decision, which we believe is flawed and which we intend to appeal,” said D.J. Collins, a spokesman for Google based in London.
Reports earlier Monday claimed that articles from the newspapers were still appearing on the Google News search engine, but none were visible in the early afternoon local time. Collins said his company was complying: "We have removed the relevant sources," he said.
Copiepresse wasn’t immediately available for comment but in statements to journalists earlier in the day the organisation’s general secretary Margaret Boribon said legal action against Google was necessary because the company was profiting from the work of the newspapers.
"We are asking for Google to pay and seek our authorisation to use our content," Boribon told news agencies including Reuters.
Collins dismissed the case as "entirely unnecessary."
"Google has a clear policy of respecting the wishes of content owners. If a newspaper does not want to be part of Google News we remove their content from our index - all they have to do is ask. There is no need for legal action and all the associated costs," he said.
Google News benefits publishers, he added, by making it easier for people to find their content and driving large numbers of users to their Web sites. "It is important to remember that we never show more than the headlines and a few snippets of text. If people want to read the entire story they have to click through to the newspapers' Web site," he said.
The case involving the Belgian newspaper publishers is similar to legal action brought against Google by the French national news agency Agence France Presse a year and a half ago.
AFP generates revenue by charging fees to news outlets that subscribe to its wire service. In its complaint, AFP charges Google with copyright violation, alleging that, as a non-subscriber to AFP, Google has no right to include AFP content in Google News. That case is still ongoing.