Google Turns into a Copyright Cop. What Will Its Cost Be?

Last Updated Dec 8, 2010 7:03 PM EST

Google (GOOG) had had the reputation of playing fast and loose with copyright, making use of material first and then asking permission -- or getting sued -- after. But as the company's fortunes and strategic directions increasingly depend on cooperation from corporations that own the rights to media, Google had tried to morph its image from pirate to cop.

But in its haste to get on the good side of media companies, Google must take care. Haste could translate into taking action against alleged infringers too quickly and when not actually warranted. That could turn into a public relations nightmare.

Google's new approach

Google General Counsel Kent Walker wrote of the steps the company will take over the next few months:
  • Improve the tools available to rights holders to issue takedown requests for videos on YouTube.
  • Sites "closely associated with piracy" won't appear in the search engine's autocomplete featue.
  • Google will improve its AdSense anti-piracy review to better prevent ads from appearing on infringing web pages.
  • The company will "experiment to make authorised preview content more readily accessible in search results."
Each step makes sense in a certain context, but also carries the danger of overzealousness. Some rights holders want to remove all use of their material, even if copyright law and fair use would permit it.

Under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act of 1998, there is a presumption that anyone claiming to be a rights holder is correct, leaving it to the person who used the work to challenge the takedown. That could put Google in the middle of a growing number of squabbles where it either takes sides against the rights holder or business, reinforcing the image it current seeks to escape, or it chances siding against some individual to come across like an unreasonable bully.

No good deed goes unpunished

As for sites associated with piracy, Google had best be hellfire and damnation sure, because, with that statement, it may have opened itself up to charges of defamation if it is wrong. No AdSense for sites that pirate material? Again we're back to the question of when something is pirated and when it isn't.

Where will Google draw the line? Is the Huffington Post, which has received extensive criticism by media companies for alleged infringement, suddenly be unavailable in autocomplete? As one person commenting on Walker's post asked, will the new approach mean that lyric sites, which are basically ad farms that thrive on people trying to find the words to some song, are kicked off AdSense? And will Google happily take the corresponding hit in its own revenue?

Not that Google should stick with the current state of things. However, when executives make decisions, they might want to consider all the bad things that could happen. Rather than being negative, it gives management a chance to anticipate problems and perhaps to avoid danger entirely.

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    Erik Sherman is a widely published writer and editor who also does select ghosting and corporate work. The views expressed in this column belong to Sherman and do not represent the views of CBS Interactive. Follow him on Twitter at @ErikSherman or on Facebook.

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