Microsoft chastises Google on copyrights

Redmond joins the hue and cry of critics who charge the search giant with usurping other people's content.

Declan McCullagh
Declan McCullagh Former Senior Writer
Declan McCullagh is the chief political correspondent for CNET. You can e-mail him or follow him on Twitter as declanm. Declan previously was a reporter for Time and the Washington bureau chief for Wired and wrote the Taking Liberties section and Other People's Money column for CBS News' Web site.
4 min read
Google's narrow view of the protections that copyright law offers creators has famously made enemies of book publishers, news organizations and professional photographers over the last few years.

Now Microsoft, which is increasingly competing with Google in business software and other areas, is piling on its rival as well.

Thomas Rubin, Microsoft's associate general counsel, told an audience of book publishers on Tuesday that Google "systematically violates copyright" law. Rubin singled out Google Book Search and YouTube for specific criticism, saying the services take a "cavalier approach to copyright."

The audience was an unusually receptive one: the Association of American Publishers, which filed a lawsuit against Google in October 2005 claiming that the search giant violated copyright law by scanning and distributing books protected under copyright law. A trial will not take place before next year.

Google's very business model invites clashes over copyright, of course. As the company becomes more deeply interested in books and video, and expands its search domain beyond Web pages, it has found itself increasingly at odds with established content industries. In addition, its keyword advertising has antagonized some trademark holders, and last month drew allegations of profiting from movie piracy.

So far, Google's intellectual property foes have been scattered throughout industries and without any prominent allies among technology companies. Their complaints about the limits of copyright law being stretched or exceeded have attracted more derision than applause in Silicon Valley. And Google has been winning far more of its legal battles over intellectual property than it has lost.

What Rubin's speech seemed designed to do was compile and air many of the complaints about Google and copyright law--a criticism that has some additional heft because Microsoft itself operates the MSN.com search engine and benefits from legal flexibility when capturing and indexing Web content.

"Google's chosen path would no doubt allow it to make more books searchable online more quickly and more cheaply than others, and in the short term this will benefit Google and its users," Rubin said. "But the question is, at what long-term cost? In my view, Google has chosen the wrong path for the longer term, because it systematically violates copyright and deprives authors and publishers of an important avenue for monetizing their works. In doing so, it undermines critical incentives to create."

Tom Rubin
Thomas Rubin

That kind of pointed attack may help to erect the scaffolding for a kind of anti-Google coalition. In addition to the book publishers and the Authors Guild, there's Agence France-Presse and its lawsuit over Google News, and Perfect 10 and its allegations over Google indexing its adult images. The American Society of Media Photographers, the Motion Picture Association of America, the Recording Industry Association of America, and the National Music Publishers Association have already filed friend-of-the-court briefs before the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals--siding with the adult photo site and against Google. (Listen to CNET News.com's podcast discussing whether Congress will take aim at video-swapping sites.)

What's remarkable is that the RIAA and MPAA had taken those positions in mid-2006, months before Google acquired YouTube and the vast numbers of video clips of dubious legality that appear on the service. Since then, big media companies as varied as News Corp. and NBC Universal have taken swings at YouTube for not taking adequate steps to block pirated content. In February, Viacom demanded that YouTube remove pirated clips from properties including MTV, Comedy Central, and VH-1.

For its part, Google denies any wrongdoing. The company circulated a statement on Tuesday from David Drummond, its chief legal officer, that said: "The goal of search engines, and of products like Google Book Search and YouTube, is to help users find information from content producers of every size. We do this by complying with international copyright laws, and the result has been more exposure and in many cases more revenue for authors, publishers and producers of content."

This week's potshots at Google over copyright invites comparisons to Microsoft's criticism of free software six years ago, which led company co-founder Bill Gates to characterize the GPL (the GNU General Public License) as having a "Pac-Man-like nature" that consumes other software. Other Microsoft efforts called GPL-released software "viral," and the so-called Halloween documents warned that Linux poses a serious threat to Windows' hegemony.

Jonathan Zuck, president of the Association for Competitive Technology in Washington, D.C., which counts Microsoft as a member, said he doesn't believe Rubin's comments presaged an anti-Google lobbying campaign or an attempt to build an anti-Google coalition.

Rather, Zuck said, it's part of Microsoft's strategy to take a pro-copyright position that's far stronger than the law actually requires. Microsoft's Zune media player, for instance, includes advanced wireless functions that allow customers to share music files. But when a file is exchanged, it expires in three days, even if the underlying file is not protected by copyright law or is otherwise in the public domain.

Similarly, Microsoft has voluntarily embedded advanced digital rights management, or DRM, technology throughout the new Windows Vista operating system. It's designed to provide additional protection for "premium content" such as Blu-ray and HD DVD sources, but has been savaged by cryptographers for being overly restrictive.

"Google has painted a target on itself by having a fairly cavalier attitude toward copyright," Zuck said. "It's not too hard to imagine a future in which Google has to come back to the content industry with its hat in its hands as these lawsuits start to flesh out."