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Google’s copyright world war

Katherine Rushton | Feb. 18, 2013
The creative industries want internet giant Google brought to heel as battles about copyright protection heat up around the world

His series of “round table” discussions occasionally became the scene for stand-up rows between the creative industries lobbying Google to demote or automatically block piracy websites on the one hand, and Google refusing to make any changes on the other. For a long time, it maintained that its complex algorithms were untouchable.

Eventually, however, Google relented. It agreed to tweak its algorithms, the complex codes that power its search engine, so that websites that predominantly offer illegal downloads appear further down the results listings than their legal alternatives. It was a watershed moment for the creative industries, helped along by threats from the major music labels that they would follow Parlophone’s lead and boycott Google Play’s cloud service en masse. “It was about a commercial deal which Google needed to do,” says a source.

The search giant also said it would remove any link to a pirated website it was notified about – something that creative industries have used to considerable effect. Some 2775 copyright owners requested the removal of more than 14 million links in the past month alone. A year ago, Google was being asked to remove about 330,000 links a month. “Google has never worked harder to tackle piracy online,” a spokesman for the company said. Rights holders who can be bothered jumping through the bureaucratic hoops can effectively line-edit search results.

But the creative industries are not yet satisfied. They want those websites that are the subject of tens of thousands of “take down” requests to be blocked altogether – sites like and whose primary purpose appears to be offering downloads of pirated content. They also claim that the changes Google has made to its algorithm are not particularly effective. A search for “Adele Skyfall” might deliver a list of legal results, but Googling “Adele Skyfall download” does not.

Google’s wranglings with the music, books and film industries around Mr Vaizey’s conference table continue, but many parties involved in these discussions consider them a sideshow.

The discussions that really count are taking place at the Intellectual Property Office (IPO) of the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, as well as at the heart of government, Number 10 Downing Street.

The IPO has responsibility for the reform of Britain’s copyright laws, the foundation on which the creative industries are based. Its critics claim it has blindly accepted the web search giant’s line in this area.

Google has funded a number of academic papers and sits on the boards of various think tanks and research bodies that argue against copyright laws. The company then cites these findings as evidence when it is lobbying government for change. It is not doing anything wrong here, merely protecting its shareholders’ interests. The real problem, say creative industry chiefs, is that the government does not challenge those findings.


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