Why Google’s New Approach to Copyright Violation Matters

Google’s announcement last week that its search algorithm will begin downgrading the search rankings of sites that have been hit with numerous claims that they’re violating copyright that have determined to be valid has been treated in some quarters as if it’s a worrisome surrender of a commitment to a free and open internet. But its decision to play ball with copyright holders doesn’t actually strike me as particularly surprising. And if its policy works as designed, it could provide incentives that would be a useful alternative to legislation.

It’s not particularly surprising to me that Google would come around to factoring valid takedown notices into its search results given the extent to which Google wants to be a content company just as much as a search company. On YouTube, Google’s response time to takedown notices is astonishingly fast — it’s not as if Google is new to responding to copyright violation complaints in a forum where it’s in the company’s interest to make content providers feel comfortable hosting their material there. Google Play may not be a seriously-established competitor to iTunes or Netflix yet, but the division is signing and promoting new content deals on a regular basis. And long-term, that’s probably a focus that makes sense. I have to think that Google can make more money from long-form video advertising on licit content in front of YouTube videos and from its share of download sales than it can from passive display advertising on illicit torrent streams. Google will always have interests in internet freedom, because access is a big part of how it makes money. But the company has long had some interests aligned with Hollywood’s, and is moving increasingly in that direction.

Then, there’s the question of incentives. One of the biggest arguments by cyberlockers and other sites that end up with users who distribute some illicit content is that it’s not fair to characterize them as primarily piracy sites. Google’s new policy gives them an incentive to prove their intentions by getting serious about removing illicit content, banning users who are repeated infringers, and making running a clean locker a competitive advantage. Now there’s no question that there are risks of false positives, and groups like the Electronic Frontier Foundation are right to keep an eye out for abuse of takedown notice abuse. It will be interesting to see if Google balances this algorithm change by bumping down the priority rating of copyright holders who file bogus or harassing takedown notices repeatedly — good incentives should work in both directions. But a focus on incentives, and on driving users to licit, quality streams of content, is where this debate should be.