Roll over, Gutenberg

Germany, I fear, is not the land of innovation. It is a land of institutions.

This week the German Bundestag passed a law created by publishers — primarily Axel Springer and Burda — to force internet companies — read: Google — to pay for quoting — and thus promoting and linking to — their content. The legislation, the Leistungsschutzrecht, was known as the Google tax.

lsr_banner13In the end, compromise legislation exempts precisely what the publishers had been going after: snippets of text of the sort that search engines quote. The bill now generously says that single words or very few words — it is not precise in its definition — remain free. But of course that exception only proves the absurdity of the effort: Who could ever own a word or a phrase? Or a thought?

So now, if the bill passes the next house of the legislature, lawyers will make a fortune debating how short is too long. No matter the length, speech suffers. Don’t the publishers see that they live by the quote? Their content is made up of what other people say. Their content gains influence when other people quote it.

But that is beside their point. They want to tax Google. They say it is not fair — imagine a kindergartener stomping his little feet — that Google makes money as they lose money. They think they deserve a share, though the truth is that their content makes up very little of what people search for. And, besides, every time Google links to them it is up to the publishers to establish a relationship with that user and find value in it. That publishers have failed to do this almost two decades into the web era is not Google’s fault; it is their fault. Rather than innovating and finding the necessary opportunity in their disruption, these publishers — conservatives who otherwise would diminish government — go running to the Chancellor and her party to pass their Leistungsschutzrecht.

To be fair, this is not purely a German disease. It is a European ailment as well. In France publishers hide behind government’s skirt to blackmail Google into paying into a fund to support innovation by publishers who’ve not innovated. The French government is also looking at taxing the gathering of big data — a tax, then, on knowledge. Belgian publishers rejected Google’s links and then thought better of it and finally extorted Google into advertising in their publications to avoid that nation’s version of a Leistungsschutzrecht. The internet causes a certain insanity the world around. In the U.S., we had SOPA and PIPA, laws like the Leistungsschutzrecht meant to protect ailing industries — though they were defeated. Then there is ACTA, an international attempt to protect the copyright industry.

But there are more issues in Germany. It is leading the privacy technopanic in Europe. Government leaders have urged citizens to have pictures taken from public places of public views of the facades of buildings blurred in Google Street View; they label this their Verpixelungsrecht. A privacy extremist in one state in Germany has tried to outlaw Facebook’s “like” button. That same state tried to overrule Facebook’s requirement to use real names.

And another: In entrepreneurial circles, Germany is known as the land of internet copycats. Again and again, German entrepreneurs have copied American services and business models, though their real business model is to get bought by the American originals.

Mind you, I love Germany (though to many Americans, that seems like an odd statement). There’s nowhere I’d rather visit. I have many friends there. I have met many talented technologists there. I marvel at its book culture and at its lively — if also suffering — market for serious journalism.

But today I worry about Germany. It is an industrial wonder in a postindustrial age. Government and media are embracing each other to defend their old institutions against disruption and the opportunity that can come with it. As I wrote in my book Public Parts, I’m concerned that Germans’ will to be private, not to fail, and especially not to fail publicly put them at a disadvantage in an entrepreneurial age when failure is a necessary product of experimentation. I fear that entrepreneurs, investors, and internet companies will shy away from Germany’s borders given the hostility that is shown especially to American internet companies.

I am disappointed that the land of Gutenberg, the land that invented the ability to share knowledge and ideas at a mass scale and to empower speech is now haggling over the control and ownership of a few words. As they say in German, schade. What a shame.

[This post has been translated into German and adapted as an op-ed at Zeit Online here.]

Related: I respond to Albert Wenger, a wise and German VC, regarding the #LSR here:


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  • Franziska

    As a German i say thank you for this article. So true.

  • Raf Weverbergh

    There is no connection whatsoever between the Samwer “cloning factory” and the LSR. Also, the German law makers just denied an ancillary copyright to the publishers. To claim anything different is just hysteria and American hand wringing.

    I really don’t believe German judges will be as stupid as to rule in favor of publishers who demand payments for “snippets” of whatever length. Unless Google suddenly decides to double or triple them (average length now 20 words).

    Also, regarding innovation: last time I checked Germany filed for as many patents at the European patent office as the US, a country that is about 4 times bigger by population.

    • Franziska

      Concerning innovation: Traditionally, Germans are good at that. The problem is the immobility of major enterprises, institutions and (unfortunately) policy makers. These groups obviously have built an alliance to prevent new technologies to rise. They are afraid of new innovations and try anything to stay upfront without inventing anything new by themselves (such as publishers who never found a way to convert their content into cash, using internet technology). Now, of all people, innovative people are left behind. Depending on how the story goes on, it’s bloggers and startups who might be the losers of LSR. Here, Jeff is right. It’s a shame.

    • Yes, I agree, a Leistungsschutzrecht debate has nothing to do with a copying/cloning discussion …. and it´s not a German cloning factory, it’s a powerful conglomerat of three brothers. A family doesn´t make a country yet.

  • Professor Jarvis, I mean no disrespect by this. I think very highly of you. Disclaimers aside, your concern for Germany’s well-being, due to its status as “an industrial wonder in a postindustrial age” seems unnecessary. Germany has a sound manufacturing base, low unemployment, decent social services. That’s good! We should only have such problems!

    There is more than merely a “failure to innovate”. Publishers, news media and data providers are battening down their content hatches, in Germany as well as France, Ireland and Belgium. That’s significant. You are right, I believe, that it isn’t Google’s fault. Google and other search engines (possibly) facilitate the majority of internet activity. Yet there will be few worthwhile destinations if providers of content cannot generate revenue from that content! It has been free for years. I don’t have the answer, nor do I believe that Google is profiting from German media’s productive output. This is a problem in the U.S. too: The New York Times continues to shed assets, shutter news desks, including its environmental reporting, and the acclaimed Green Blog.

  • Mats Lindholm

    I cringe every time you and other people from United States think that Europe consits of Germany, France and maybe Great Britain. I live in Sweden and here it would be political suicide to propose a law resembling lika the one in Germany. We as swedes are just as astounden and puzzled as you are. So please don’t write europe or european when it’s only about one or two countries.

  • extremus2

    What is happening is not hard to understand Jeff; in Germany the guilds held sway for centuries and had considerable political power. This is just the digital age version.

  • Katie Nelson

    While I think I see your point, I am a bit confused as to why it would be in the publishers’ best interest to tax the search engine that gives their writing exposure in the first place. Surely people who are truly interested in a topic wouldn’t settle for merely a few sentences, but would rather want the entire book, which they pay the publishers for anyway? Taxing Google for a few snippets seems like trying to charge people for samples at the supermarket.

  • closetothetruth

    you are being ironic, right? As you even kind of half-acknowledge in your Gutenberg pamphlet, copyright was created in part to control the destructive theft of material from authors who wrote it–despite the claims of the pirate party and others. In the early days of printing, authors–even famous-to-us authors like Shakespeare–routinely received absolutely no compensation for their work whatsoever. None. We see some of this in China today, where copyright is poorly enforced or ignored altogether, although it’s obviously hard to get exact statistics. Copyright was created in direct response to the profiteering of printers–in other words, the Gutenberg revolution directly gave rise to copyright. Printers routinely profited from and participated in the monarchical copyright monopolies. This piece rewrites history to make it sound as if Gutenberg tore apart a copyright regime. Copyright did not exist when Gutenberg printed. If the Gutenberg history is any guide, the proliferation powers of the internet will eventually provoke even fuller technical and political controls over the spread of IP. Therefore, the example you are giving is following history exactly, while you are writing as if it’s a shock. Further, by promoting the power of copyright-free information proliferation–which could potentially give rise to the same universal piracy characteristic of the early days of printing–you are actually providing fuel to the corporate fires that have every reason to use every means available to lock their content down as tightly as possible (and are succeeding).

  • Funny enough, but there are some innovative ideas regarding digital publishing out of the “Gutenberg country” … have a look at ,,…

  • André Rebentisch

    Companies don’t write laws over here and I find the notion inappropriate unless sustained by evidence: “This week the German Bundestag passed a law created by publishers — primarily Axel Springer and Burda — to force internet companies”

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