When it comes to fighting online piracy, some music and film industry executives think Google could be doing more to help.
At a time when Google is negotiating with television, movie, and music producers for the recently launched GoogleTV and an upcoming digital music service, the company has been sending mixed messages about how much help it will provide in removing links to pirated songs from its search index.
Last month, executives from two music-industry trade groups, the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) and the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry (IFPI), asked Google if it could provide a means to help them track down pirated material more efficiently. Typically, copyright owners are responsible for finding pirated links and alerting Google, which is required by law to quickly remove the links.
But Google's response raised eyebrows at some of the labels.
James Pond, a Google manager, wrote in a letter dated September 20, that Google would be happy to help--for a price, according to a source who had seen letter.
Pond wrote that after discussing the music industry's request with the team "that runs the Web search API product," Google planned to provide three options for third parties to access the API. The first one was designed for third-party services that display Google ads alongside search results. The second was for developers and would include only a very low number of searches.
The third was a paid product called Site Search, Pond wrote. "The only option for the IFPI/RIAA to access our Web search API will be the third option," Pond wrote, according to the source who had seen the letter.
"I understand we charge a standard rate of $5 per thousand queries, which is charged to recover our costs in providing this service," Pond wrote.
A music industry source estimated that such charges could add up to several million dollars a year.
Google confirmed the authenticity of the letter. A representative said Google fully complies with copyright law and wanted to make it clear that the company does not charge to remove links to pirated material.
"As always, Google honors valid legal removal requests," the representative said in an e-mail to CNET. "We don't charge for removals and have no plans to. We have a great relationship with the music industry and have worked consistently with them to advance their interests through services like YouTube ContentID, our music search feature, and our developer tools."
According to one music industry insider, few in the music industry will find comfort knowing Google isn't charging them to take down pirated links but does charge them to search for the links.
Does Google bankroll piracy?
Google's often contentious relationship with the entertainment industry doesn't end with the music business. There's plenty of grumbling going on in Hollywood about ads from Google and other online services found at numerous pirate sites.
Disney and Warner Bros. filed a lawsuit against Scottsdale, Ariz.-based Triton Media in August, alleging that the company committed contributory copyright infringement by providing ads to several sites they accuse of either distributing pirated films and TV shows or linking to them. Some of the sites named were Free-tv-video-online.info, supernovatube.com, and donogo.com.
The suit was conspicuous in that the studios could have leveled some of the same accusations against Google, a far larger advertiser, but didn't.
"From my point of view, Google fences stolen goods," said Ellen Seidler, an independent filmmaker, who last month told CNET that piracy cost her money when her small-budget film, "And Then Came Lola," was distributed illegally online. "These [pirate] sites...want to drive traffic to their site and they do it by pirating films. They are paid for the ads on their site by Google and others. What we need to do is force Google to be more vigilant in preventing filmmakers from getting ripped off."
Google obeys copyright law
The latest attempts to enlist Google in the antipiracy fight come at a time when the search engine seemingly enjoys close ties to content creators. After years of criticism (and lawsuits), Google has created a filtering technology that has won accolades from NBC Universal and other big studios. Google has licensed films and TV shows to sell or rent via YouTube. And the search engine has cut licensing deals with the major music labels to obtain rights so users could include copyrighted songs in their clips.
More recently, the four top record labels have been sprinkling rose petals in Google's path in hopes the company will march into the digital music space and do battle with Apple. The record companies desperately want someone to loosen Apple's hold of digital music. Sources in the music industry told CNET that Google could launch a music store this year. What this means is that Google isn't a big enough copyright headache to prevent some in the entertainment world from doing business with it.
Still, even the U.S. government is beginning to nudge Google to do more. Last month, 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. If passed, the bill would hand sweeping powers to the Department of Justice.
If the DOJ can convince a judge that a Web site is dedicated to pirating content, then the government can order the site's registrar to pull its Web domain. For sites that reside outside the U.S., the bill would empower "the U.S. attorney general to serve the court order on other specified third parties, such as Internet service providers, payment processors, and online ad network providers."
ISPs could be required to cut off access to the sites. Credit-card companies could be ordered to cease processing transactions for them. Google could be forced to stop paying these sites ad revenue.
Supporters of the bill failed to get it to the Senate floor in time for a vote last month before lawmakers adjourned to hit the campaign trail, but expect it to be reintroduced following the November elections.
Google supporters say that copyright owners are the ones responsible for policing the Web. Google critics argue that it doesn't matter who's on patrol because Google has set itself up to profit from piracy regardless of who is patrolling the Web. Some in the music sector feel that by charging content creators to find pirated material, Google is making them pay Google for protection against Google.
"Google makes money on the advertising from these pirate sites," said Rick Carnes, president of the Songwriters Guild of America. "Now they want to make money helping creators find out how to take the stuff down...Everybody keeps talking about making the Internet free and open. How about we get a fair and just Internet?"
Below, Ellen Seidler offers an illustration of how Google allegedly profits from online piracy.