This past week members of the House Judiciary Committee traveled to California to hold a pair of roundtable discussions on the future of copyright. On Monday committee members were in Santa Clara, the heart of Silicon Valley, and on Tuesday traveled to Los Angeles to hear from a variety of stakeholders discussing everything from overhauling an out-dated U.S. Copyright Office to DMCA circumvention for tractor repairs.
As a participant in the Santa Clara event I offered up my observations on updating the copyright office and the need for a copyright small claims process.
Though I wasn’t at the LA event, I read with great interest a report in Variety by Ted Johnson that documented an exchange between Google’s legal director for copyright, Fred von Lohmann and Richard Gladstein, founder of Film Colony:
“Why couldn’t we find a way, in all of your wonderful genius, to prevent being directed to illegal activity,” Gladstein said…
“We are not in a position to decide what is legal and what is illegal online,” Von Lohmann responded.
Then Gladstein asked, “Is it legal or illegal to download a movie that you don’t own?”
Von Lohmann answered, “I agree. Downloading a movie, in order to watch it without paying for it, is infringing. That is not the problem. The problem is when you have over a trillion websites, you have hundreds of thousands of film titles, millions of song titles, not just in English but every language around the world … as a search engine there is no magic way for us to know in advance what is legal and what is illegal online. We rely on copyright owners to inform us.”
[Von Lohmann] noted that Google has been demoting sites based on the number of takedown notices they receive from copyright owners. He also said that such sites don’t pop up when users simply put in the name of the film title without the word “watch” before it. [emphasis added] —Variety
Von Lohmann’s posturing on Google’s piracy problem is nothing new, but it is worth pointing out how his statements are carefully crafted to dovetail with Google’s own (vague) propagandistic promises.
In 2014 Google announced that it had updated its “How Google Fights Piracy” report (first published in 2012). In it, Google once again gave lip service to its down ranking (not removal) of pirate sites in its search results:
Google also factors in the number of valid copyright removal notices we receive for any given site as one signal among the hundreds that we take into account when ranking search results. Consequently, sites with high numbers of removal notices may appear lower in search results. This ranking change helps users find legitimate, quality sources of content more easily.
Note that in its glossy report Google didn’t mention exactly what types of search terminology would trigger a down ranking of results. Apparently, if we are to believe Mr. von Lohmann, we should only expect pirate link demotions to take place when searching using the movie’s title only, not when using terms like “watch” and “download” in the hunt for pirated copies?
I did my own quick research today using a recently released indie film The Overnight. When I searched using the title only, Google does offer up a page full of legit links.
However, when I add the term “watch” to the mix and search for “watch the overnight” take a gander at what results lead the pack….The top result led directly to a notorious pirate site and 6 out of 10 gave me links to pirated versions of the film.
I checked Google’s transparency report to see how many times this particular domain had been reported for infringement. Note, the Solar Movie’s domain suffix has changed multiple times over the years. It’s latest incarnation, solarmovie.ac, seems to have come online only last month. Already its been reported for copyright infringement more than 600 times.
Why won’t Google down rank sites found in actual searches for pirated content?
I’d like to ask Mr. von Lohmann why Google can’t seem to manage down ranking pirate sites for ALL its search results–not just results found when using the film’s title. After all, folks looking for pirated movies aren’t idiots….adding the term “watch” or “free download” to a search is standard operating procedure if one is seeking pirated copies. It makes no sense for Google to ignore these search terms if it’s truly serious about how it “fights” piracy.
Sure, total searches for legit links may far outweigh overall searches for pirated ones, but in the end what we’re talking about when we are discussing “fighting piracy” are search terms like “watch” and “download free.” Look what shows up at the bottom of the results for “watch The Overnight”search… Google continues to offer handy suggestions for other search terms users could use to find more (pirate) links.
Google pretends to be working on its piracy problem, but when you drill down it’s clear that the tech giant is doing everything it can to avoid taking action or responsibility. I hope those House members who sat and listened to Mr. von Lohmann will not take him at his word, but instead, examine actual facts.
Google still has a very long way to go when it comes to fighting piracy.