Google: the pirates' best friend?

13 Apr 2012

Google stands accused of aiding and abetting piracy. Could it do more to prevent copyright theft? Should it? Nicole Kobie investigates

Try this: type your favourite artist and song into Google, along with the word “download”. Odds are – depending, of course, on your musical tastes – that the bulk of the first-page results will feature links to “free” MP3 sites, but few legal places to buy the track.

Not surprisingly, rights-holders take issue with this. So too does the Government, which is asking the search giant to proactively block links to such sites. A solution is being discussed by culture minister Ed Vaizey, rights lobbyists such as the BPI, and search engines including Google.

But can – and should – Google take action, or is it already doing enough with its current takedown system?

Murdoch’s fury

Rupert Murdoch, for one, thinks the world’s leading search engine isn’t doing nearly enough. The News Corp boss took to Twitter in January to launch a thunderous broadside against Google and it’s alleged cohorts in the Obama administration.

Piracy leader is Google who streams movies free, sells advts around them. No wonder it’s pouring millions into lobbying

“So Obama has thrown in his lot with Silicon Valley paymasters who threaten all software creators with piracy, plain thievery,” Murdoch tweeted, adding: “Piracy leader is Google who streams movies free, sells advts around them. No wonder [it’s] pouring millions into lobbying.”

Murdoch, whose company owns movie studio 20th Century Fox and many other media outlets, provided an example of Google’s alleged transgressions. “Just been to Google search for Mission: Impossible. Wow, several sites offering free links. I rest my case.”

It’s a case that’s been made many times before. Music bosses have often argued that Google favours sites offering illegitimate downloads over officially sanctioned stores, making it easier for casual surfers to “do the wrong thing” rather than the “right”.

Movie studios, games companies and ebook publishers have all lodged similar gripes. Is Google deaf to their complaints?

DMCA takedowns

As a US company, Google is already subject to DMCA takedown orders – the shorthand for the process by which sites are blocked under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.

A rights-holder can ask Google in writing, or via a form on its website, to stop linking to pages offering infringing versions of their content.

The owner of the page can file a counter-order to prevent the block or have a link reinstated after the fact, if it turns out the claim is incorrect. Google and other sites, including Twitter and Microsoft’s Bing, are given safe harbour by US authorities if they abide by such orders, protecting them from further court action.

Google filed a document with the New Zealand Government in 2009 claiming that 57% of takedown notices were actually sent by rival businesses

It all sounds perfectly civilised, but the system has its detractors. Rights-holders want more power – the controversial US bills SOPA and Protect IP initially threatened to remove the safe harbour clause – while on the other side digital rights activists argue such link removal is censorship.

Google points out that many of the notices aren’t valid; the search giant filed a document with the New Zealand Government in 2009 claiming that 57% of takedown notices were actually sent by rival businesses, while 37% weren’t valid under takedown legislation.

For transparency, Google notes in its search results when a site has been removed under the DMCA, and links to ChillingEffects.org, where it publishes all takedown requests.

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