Monday, November 27, 2006

Google and copyright: back to the future?

Recent proposed changes to Australian copyright law have brought an ancient conundrum -- in terms of the World Wide Web -- back to the fore regarding intellectual property rights and search engines. As early as 1996, when Google was still being run out of a garage on the Stanford University campus, the search engine was generating complaints from website owners, who accused Google (née Backrub) of "stealing" their online content.

Insofar as Backrub's approach to indexing the Internet was entirely new, the content owners could be forgiven for their suspicious response. Whereas previous search engines merely used top-level keywords to generate their results, Backrub looked at as many pages on a website that it could get its little spidery appendages on, so when some robot hailing from the Stanford Computer Science Department starting requesting every last blasted scrap of html on the web servers of museums and other early online resources it set off all kinds of warning bells. Fortunately the folks at Stanford and Google were able to head off any legal action by assuring the content producers that their page requests were not an attempt at massive virtual theft but merely a means to an end that would benefit all parties involved.

But fast forward ten years to the present: now that virtually every content producer out there is also an online content producer as well, the stakes are completely different than they were back in 1996. While the gentleman's agreement that Google had with the people whose websites they had copied for the purpose of indexing now is still mutually beneficial, the owners of virtual intellectual property -- riding a wave of a decade of successful lobbying on their own behalf internationally -- are now attempting to renege on their end of the symbiotic bargain, having somehow convinced themselves that they don't need things like Fair Use and Net Neutrality now that the digital age has come into its own.

At the heart of this conflict is the issue of control. Content producers/providers have a vested interest in things like portals and "sticky" websites, whereas increasingly users just want what they were looking for in the first place, thank you very much. This isn't to say that they're not interested in serendipitous finds, but that they would rather make these discoveries through disinterested parties like social networking software and tags rather than via product synergy or payola schemes. This is why MP3's are now the basic unit of music instead of the album, because why pay for the other eleven tracks when all you want is the one you like? By the same token this is why online newspapers and other periodicals vigorously oppose the practice of "deep linking", which takes you straight to the article you want to see rather than forcing you through a front page portal loaded with all the other crap they'd like to look at as well.

Who will ultimately prevail in this tug-of-war? While the content producers have managed to rig the legal table fairly well in their favor, even they are beginning to realize that even if you have the law on your side that doesn't mean the public will fall in line and behave as you wish them to -- something that even the recording industry finally seems to get. Even the most hard-line intellectual property types are starting to understand that when millions of people turn to "illegal" methods for acquiring the information and online commodities they desire this represents a failure of the market to deliver a desirable option, and offers an opportunity for innovation rather than representing a threat to Western Civilization as We Know It™.

In the case of this proposed Australian law, observers are not exaggerating when they say that if enacted it will effectively cripple the Internet as we know it, just as the legal blocking of such efforts of Google Book Search will only hurt authors rather than help them. Despite every effort on the part of the old guard to paint Google as a villain, the public continues to reward the search company for understanding our needs and working to meet them; and though it may be that Google's legal challenges may be far from over, I think at the end of the day it is they that will still be standing.

Thanks to BoingBoing for the original story link!

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