Should Google be doing more to combat online piracy?



Creators of online content should feel free to share material online without fear of non-attribution or piracy, or having their copyright or trademarks misused. Plainly, the current system of enforcement – whether it be self-regulation by a search engine or internet service provider (ISP) through to law enforcement – is not working.

In 2011, a study conducted by British anti-piracy consultants Envisional concluded the illegal downloading and online sharing of copyrighted material – such as pirated movies, music and games – accounts for almost one-quarter of all global online traffic.

We need policies, regulation and legislation which is well-understood and enforceable. These also need to foster dignity, recognition and a stimulating environment for creators. Economically, there needs to be financial rewards so artists can benefit from their hard work and have an incentive to create more.

Unauthorised use of copyrighted material affects online commerce by undermining the incentives to create content in digital form. But the millions of dollars invested globally trying to enforce copyright have not stemmed piracy.

Such enforcement needs to occur utilising civil tort as such issues don’t revolve around crimes against the state. But the music and movie industries aside, creators – generally speaking – don’t have the funds to investigate and subsequently launch legal action. The obvious starting point is to look at search-engine behaviour.

In October last year, Google increased its US market share to 65.3%, while in Australia it is estimated to have more than 90% of the search market. Since search engines are the delivery mechanism for copyrighted content and Google is the dominant player, it makes sense for that company should bear the brunt of responsibility.

Google makes most of its revenue from search advertising. As a company, it has a canny ability (explicitly listed in its privacy policy) to learn about your online activities, from favourite search terms, websites visited, email content (for Gmail users) and social networking practices (through Google+).

This gives Google the ability to charge organisations substantial fees for highly-targeted advertising. Indeed Google’s ability to know so much about its users would put it in the box-seat for firstly detecting unauthorised use of copyrighted material and, secondly, policing it.

Google claims it will provide this function on its Google Music service, but surely in the interests of net neutrality it should identify pirated music across all searches.

Google could use its sophisticated tracking technologies to assist the creative sector. It could create a transparent process for artists and intermediaries to find out who is looking at what artwork when, or downloading what content when, then devise a model to distribute revenues accordingly.

Such a system should make it as easy as possible to license, rather than obstruct, that process – at the same time making sure the system efficiently secures the interests of artists themselves.

Google Product Search collects product information in two ways. Firstly, it uses product information submitted electronically by sellers. Secondly, as Google’s spidering software crawls the internet, Google Product Search automatically identifies web pages that offer products for sale.

Such a service shouldn’t financially reward Google by forcing the legitimate distributors of creative content to advertise through it. Unfortunately, Google products and services are not subject to the same search-ranking algorithmic process as all other organic search results – they rank higher.

Regardless, a partnership between creators and Google, through the Google Product Search is unlikely to yield economic or social results for the producers of copyright material. Google terms and conditions state:

“The Google Product Search service is provided AS IS and Google expressly disclaims to the fullest extent permitted by law all express, implied, and statutory warranties regarding the information included therein.

“Under no circumstances shall Google be liable to any user on account of their use, misuse, or reliance on the Google Product Search service.”

For such a system to work, Google would have to abide by search neutrality principles and ensure search results are comprehensive, impartial and based solely on relevance.

A system of rewarding art, in all its dimensions, must be flexible and adaptable enough to cope with new environments. The digital economy allows the broad creative sector to monetise its endeavours.

Search engines could prove a powerful partnership to reduce copyright theft, while assisting artists to gain recompense for their work. Without this we will kill innovation and damage artists\’ interests.

Copyright is important. Let’s think of innovative ways to deliver a system of recognition and reward that puts artists and creators at its heart.