Indexing the internet and searching for “free”

The Botnet

The Botnet

“If we can put a man on the moon and we can transplant a heart, we surely can say when something shows up ‘free’ and do something about that.” Rep. Tom Marino (R-PA).

In March, the U.S. House Judiciary Subcommittee on Courts, Intellectual Property and the Internet held a hearing on Section 512, the provision that provides protection for internet service providers from liability for the infringing actions of network users. The Library Copyright Alliance (LCA) submitted comments (pdf) in support of no changes to the existing law, holding that this provision helps libraries provide online services in good faith without liability for the potentially illegal actions of a third party.

Though libraries were not specifically represented in the hearing, one line of questioning directed at both Google and Automattic Inc.–owner of WordPress–stands out as relevant to both present and future methods of delivering content and services to library patrons: “free” as the opposite of “legal” or “legitimate.”

Several representatives focused on witnesses Katherine Oyama, senior copyright policy counsel for Google, and Paul Sieminski, general counsel for Automattic Inc., expressing significant confusion about how Google creates and modifies indexing and search algorithms, as well as the nuances of copyright protection on a blogging platform. “Free” was the watchword, and many subcommittee members expressed the same basic concerns.

copyright pirate imageRep. Judy Chu (D-CA) asked about autocomplete results in Google that include “free” and “watch online,” saying that such results “induce infringement” on the part of searchers. Rep. Cedric Richmond (D-LA) further echoed worries that unsophisticated Internet users like his grandmother would be “induced to infringe” by seeing an autocomplete result for “watch 12 Years a Slave free online.”

But the most colorful exchange began with Rep. Tom Marino (R-PA) expressing disbelief that Google could not simply ban or remove terms such as “watch X movie online for free” from the engine.

Oyama rightly pointed out that “we are not going to ban the word ‘free’ from search…there are many legitimate sources for music and films that are available for free.” She also promoted YouTube’s ContentID software as an effective answer to alleged infringement, though there are certainly reasons to remain wary of the “software savior” in addressing takedown notices (more on ContentID coming soon).

As libraries begin exploring ways to deliver legally obtained and responsibly monitored content to patrons, we will have to offer a counterpoint to the concept of “free” as the automatic enemy of rights holders. While we know that it is anything but free to provide these services (no-fee or no-charge is perhaps a better description), the public often perceives it as such, and simply banning phrases like “read for free” or “watch for free” from the world’s largest Internet index will not reduce infringement. Instead, it removes a responsible and reliable source from top page results, which is the exact opposite of what the lawmakers above support.

About

Abby Lull is a Research Associate for the ALA Office for Information Technology Policy. As part of the OITP Fellows Program, she works on copyright and licensing issues, as well as other aspects of the OITP portfolio. Abby is a recent Master’s graduate of the College of Information Studies at the University of Maryland, where she concentrated on copyright and intellectual property issues in information access and management.

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