Has Google jumped sides in copyright war?

File-sharing and free-content proponents want Google to say it ain't so. But if big media gets its way, Google's new antipiracy measures are just a first step.

Greg Sandoval Former Staff writer
Greg Sandoval covers media and digital entertainment for CNET News. Based in New York, Sandoval is a former reporter for The Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times. E-mail Greg, or follow him on Twitter at @sandoCNET.
Greg Sandoval
5 min read

Among those who favor less restrictive copyright laws, Google once possessed undeniable street-cred.

When it came to standing up for the right of Internet users to freely exchange information online, the perception was Google would hold the line. The search engine sparred over copyright issues with newspapers, book publishers, recording companies, and big Hollywood studios--even fending off a $1 billion copyright complaint filed against it by Viacom, parent company of MTV. As for enforcement, Google made its position clear: the job of policing the Web for pirated content belonged to copyright owners.

Ellen Seidler, an indie filmmaker, has taken screen shots of dozens of alleged pirates sites featuring Google ads. Google plans to soon 'expel' some of these sites. Ellen Seidler

But yesterday, Google's position began to blur. The search engine announced it would start booting alleged copyright violators off AdSense, the company's successful advertising program. Google said it would try to block terms associated with piracy from appearing in the search engine's Autocomplete function. In addition, CNET has learned that antipiracy software tools that Google once planned to offer to the Recording Industry Association of America for a fee will now be offered for free, according to a music industry source.

In announcing Google's plans, Kent Walker, the company's general counsel, wrote in a blog post that those who use the Internet to infringe content are "bad apples."

For file sharers, Google's antipiracy moves raise some questions, such as why now? Will Google do more piracy busting and if so where will it stop? Google could cause file sharers some pain if the company thrust a shoulder into antipiracy.

Content supply
As for what prompted Google to move now, Walker said little. He wrote that the company has seen a growing number of issues related to infringing content. Maybe so, but Google's timing is hard to ignore. The company's willingness to act as copyright enforcer comes as some of its most high-profile media initiatives are content starved.

Google TV, which launched in October, is off to a rocky start. Billed as a way for people to access Web video on a living-room TV, the software platform is unable to do that for a wide range of shows. The four broadcast networks and Viacom, which also owns Comedy Central, have chosen to block access to Google TV.

Over in music, Google is in negotiations with the major recording companies about launching a service that would compete with Apple's iTunes, multiple music-industry insiders told CNET.

The parties, however, haven't got much done, the sources said. While those overseeing Google's music initiative told their label counterparts that they hoped to launch this year, Google has yet to ink a licensing deal with any of the top four labels, according to the sources. Any launch will have to wait until the next year.

In the negotiations, the film and music sectors have made it clear that they wanted more assistance from Google on antipiracy, according to sources with knowledge of the talks. The movie studios and music labels each have their own antipiracy wish lists, but to both media sectors, nothing was more important than getting Google to cut off AdSense money to pirate sites.

Severing pirate ties
Google pays the people who post its ads on their sites. These ads are common at sites connected to file sharing or those that stream pirated movies to users. It was a big enough problem for the entertainment sector to complain to the U.S. government. Two months ago, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and senior Republican member Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) introduced a bill called Combating Online Infringement and Counterfeits Act. There was little doubt that part of the legislation was pointed directly at Google.

Mitch Bainwol, CEO of the RIAA. Declan McCullagh

If passed, the bill would hand the Department of Justice the power to shut down alleged pirate sites as well as order ad companies like Google to stop doing business with the accused sites. Ellen Seidler, an independent filmmaker, has been very vocal about calling for Google to sever financial ties with pirates.

"It's never been realistic to expect Google to police every AdSense member," Seidler said. "But even when Google learns that a site is linked to piracy, they still don't stop doing business. All we're saying is that once it's proven these sites are involved in piracy, Google should disable their AdSense accounts."

That brings us to question 2, about whether Google will do more piracy fighting. While we can't say for certain what it will do, we do know the entertainment companies will keep asking for more cooperation.

Google's antipiracy plans don't go far enough to satisfy some in the entertainment business. One music industry insider complained that Google's promise to remove pirated material within 24 hours of being notified doesn't mean much when it comes to pre-released songs or films that are leaked to the Web.

Popular content spreads too fast to wait a full day for Google to act, according to the source. There's also no oversight in place to make sure Google fulfills its promises, the source said. One particular sore spot with content creators is one of the people influencing Google's copyright policies.

In July, Google hired attorney Fred von Lohmann as senior copyright counsel. Prior to that, von Lohmann crossed swords with the film studios and music labels in a host of big copyright cases as senior staff attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, an advocacy group for Internet users and tech companies. While von Lohmann is a hero to the file-sharing community, some entertainment execs believe he's linked too closely with anti-copyright positions to steer Google's course here.

That didn't stop Mitch Bainwol, RIAA CEO and Bob Pisano, interim CEO of the Motion Picture Association of America, from applauding Google's antipiracy plans. Both men, however, signaled that they want more from Google. They defined the search engine's moves as "first steps."

"These are important first steps toward helping protect the rights of content owners," Pisano said. "We also look forward to working with Google to address other important issues, including Google's listings and rankings of notorious pirate sites as places to go to get movies that are still only in the cinema."

But these aren't really Google's first steps are they?

In 2007, Google created a sophisticated filtering system to help keep unauthorized clips from being posted to YouTube even though it wasn't required by law. Back then, Google claimed it wanted to be a good partner to copyright owners. It appears the company is willing once again to prove it.