Voluntary Efforts Can Be Less Transparent Than Laws in the Books

By Todd R. Weiss  |  Posted 2012-08-14

Google Search Algorithm Update Means Better Copyright Protection

Google is updating its search engine algorithm to help copyright holders better protect their works by ranking Websites lower if they've been reported as infringing on the copyrights of others.

The move comes as part of an evolving method to better protect copyright holders from having their content reused by others who don't pay for it, whether in print, film, audio, images or any other form.

To retune its search algorithm, Google will now begin taking into account a new "signal," or data point, in its search rankings–the number of valid copyright removal notices Google receives for any given site. Those removal notices are filed by copyright holders when they believe that a Website is using their content without permission, a procedure provided under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA). The new signal joins a list of more than 200 others that are factors used in the ranking of Web pages by Google's search engine to help provide accurate results for users.

The change should help users find legitimate, quality sources of content more easily, according to Amit Singhal, Google's senior vice president of engineering.

"Since we re-booted our copyright removals over two years ago, we've been given much more data by copyright owners about infringing content online," Singhal wrote in a company blog post. "In fact, we're now receiving and processing more copyright-removal notices every day than we did in all of 2009-more than 4.3 million URLs in the last 30 days alone. We will now be using this data as a signal in our search rankings."

For copyright holders, the move by Google is a good one that should continue the slow progress being made in the area of copyright-protection online, say experts.

"This is something that content owners are going to be happy about," said Anderson Duff, a copyright and patent attorney with Wolf Greenfield & Sacks. "Whether or not this is a big step remains to be seen."

What the algorithm change does do, though, is penalizes Websites that are already illegally infringing on copyrighted content by pushing them lower in Google's rankings so they are not profitable.

"It's going to make companies that are built on the idea of infringing on third-party content more difficult to find in searches," said Duff.  "The problem is that there are lots of Websites out there whose whole business model is to include infringing content.  If they are then being penalized in their search engine results because of that, it can really be damaging for a Website. "

Websites that infringe on the content of others receive copyright removal notices all the time and usually remove the infringing content within a reasonable amount of time to avoid legal problems, said Duff. But it often doesn't end there, as the sites simply post new infringing content and keep it posted until someone else files a removal notice.

"It's a giant game of Whac-a-Mole," said Duff.

Voluntary Efforts Can Be Less Transparent Than Laws in the Books

Andrew McDiarmid, a senior policy analyst with the Center for Democracy & Technology, an Internet rights group, said the Google algorithm change to better protect copyright holders is a voluntary effort that can be preferable to mandatory new laws which can be overbearing.

"To the extent that it steers users to licensed music and films online, I think it will help copyright holders," said McDiarmid. "We don't know yet."

One concern to watch, he said, is that while voluntary private efforts like this one can be effective, they can also be less transparent than laws in the books.

"Google needs to be clear about what it's doing and needs to provide ways for site owners who feel they've been wrongly affected," said McDiarmid.

Dave Schubmehl, a search analyst with IDC, said he sees the algorithm change as a positive for content owners.

"It certainly looks like this is going to help in that it's going to change the rankings so that the legitimate copyright owner's information will bubble to the top," said Schubmehl.  "That's going to help to be effective against people who are out there stealing content."

The main reason that such sites steal content in the first place, he said, is so they can attract readers with great content and then can conversely increase their search rankings. "It's going to help ameliorate that problem."

At the same time, it won't solve everything, said Schubmehl. "It's probably not as strong as the copyright owners would like to have, but the reality of the situation is that Google can't go around policing all of this without the courts and the help of  all the parties involved. It appears that Google is trying to do its part."

Google's new algorithm change can't actually tell if a particular Web page does or does not violate copyright law. It can only take infringement reports from copyright holders and use them as a factor in the rankings. Only a court can actually decide if a copyright has been infringed. Because of this, Google won't remove any pages from the results of the search query unless they receive a valid copyright removal order from the affected party, according to the company.

"Counter-notice" tools will also continue to be provided to help people who believe that their content has been wrongly removed, wrote Google's Singhal. Those owners can get such materials reinstated through that process, if warranted.  Singhal said that Google will "continue to be transparent about copyright removals."

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