Looking to avoid the kind of legal tangle that Google has found itself in, Microsoft's MSN division in Belgium is in talks with a group of newspaper publishers over the rights to publish their content on its Web site.
The newspaper group, called Copiepresse, wrote a letter to MSN Belgium earlier this week, asking it to stop posting Belgian newspaper articles to its Web site without permission, said Margaret Boribon, the group's secretary general.
Copiepresse argues that search engine companies are profiting unfairly by posting content from its members' newspapers on their sites, where they often sell advertising. The search sites, such as Google News, typically post the first paragraph or two from the newspaper article and then a link to the publication's own Web site.
Copiepresse took Google to court over the matter. In September it won a ruling that required Google to remove the French and German language newspapers published in Belgium from its Web sites. Google complied, but has also appealed the ruling and is set to argue its case November 24.
MSN is being more cooperative than Google, according to Boribon. Representatives from MSN Belgium met with a lawyer from Copiepresse this week to discuss a compromise that would allow MSN to keep publishing the Belgian newspaper content, she said.
"MSN doesn't want to have a court case, that's for sure," she said. "We have met with them and they understand our point of view. We have to find a compromise ... that is a win-win situation for both sides."
Copiepresse has asked MSN to come up with some proposals for a compromise and will meet with the company again next week, Boribon said. Meanwhile, MSN has started to remove some Belgian newspaper content from its site, she said.
Nothing has been decided, but one possible solution would be for MSN Belgium to share a portion of its advertising revenue with the publishers. "That is one option we are hoping for," Boribon said.
MSN, through its public relations agency in Europe, confirmed that it received a "cease and desist" letter from Copiepresse, which it is in the process of reviewing. It said it could not comment further on the matter.
The group, which represents some of Belgium's best known newspapers, including Le Soir and Le Libre, has been gathering more support for its cause. It was joined this week by separate groups that represent Belgian photographers, journalists, scientific authors and multimedia publishers, who plan to back its efforts.
Meanwhile, Copiepresse complains that Google is not complying fully with the court's order. Some stories by the Belgian publications still appear in cached pages of its Web site, Boribon said.
Google countered that it has complied fully with the court's order, going as far as to remove the Belgian newspaper stories from its Google News site worldwide, not just in Belgium. Google News does not have a separate cache, and the Google search engine will not provide links to cached pages if they have been removed from its search results, said a spokeswoman for Google in the U.K.
The moves by Copiepresse have been closely watched because of the wider implication they may have for the ability of Web sites to aggregate content from third parties. Critics have noted that search engines publish only a small portion of the publishers' contents, and that Google can help to drive substantial traffic to Web sites.
"That's true, and what we intend to do is to remain on Google and other search engines," Boribon said. "But it must be done in a way that is fair."