One of the paramount concerns of our time (among the seemingly dozens of them pressing down upon us at any given moment) is how to contend with the power of big tech. It’s something that every industry and sector has grappled with, although the matter has been something more existential for journalism and online publications. Where once the vast majority of the population paid for newspapers and magazines as one of the main sources of news, the shift towards everything being online has left most publications in something of a cash crunch, and left companies like Google as something of a hegemon when it came to how people got their news.
In light of this, the European Union passed new copyright laws preventing Google from using excerpts from news articles for free, on the grounds that doing so was violating the copyright of the individual publications; if they wanted to continue the practice, they would have to pay for the privilege.
You could be forgiven for thinking that this would simply end the practice of any online news content on Google, at least in the EU; after all, Google didn’t get to be where they are by opening their pocketbooks readily, and one of the many benefits afforded by the power they’ve accrued is the ability to set terms rather than having terms set for you. Which makes it all the more surprising to see that Google has struck a deal with French publishers over payments for copyrighted material to appear in Google News feeds.
The deal isn’t yet a fait accompli; the framework allows for Google to negotiate with individual publishers over the payments for the content in question. But it seems almost certain respective deals will be arrived at in due time; like it or not, Google isn’t wrong when it says that it provides a substantial portion of the eyes for any article or site, and at a time when the future of journalism has never been more precarious, any money is good money.
Google surely benefits as well: it has positioned itself as the tool to find anything, and so it would do some measure of harm if more and more companies began to partition off their content from its feed. But this isn’t a story about things working out for Google, or Google itself; it’s a testament to the power and importance of copyright, which ultimately served as a bulwark against another industry getting trampled by big tech despite its protestations. For everyone who has pondered the importance of copyright in the digital age, this should serve as a reminder that ownership still matters, provided you assert it.