The Breakdown | Explaining Southern California's economy
Business & Economy

Copyright Wars: Google does what Hollywood wants

The Google logo is seen at the Google headquarters in Mountain View, California. The company has announced a change to its search rankings, intended to protect copyright.
The Google logo is seen at the Google headquarters in Mountain View, California. The company has announced a change to its search rankings, intended to protect copyright.
AFP/AFP/Getty Images

Last week, Google announced that it's making a change — or more accurately perhaps, a modification — to its search algorithm. This is the explanation, from Google's search blog:

Starting next week, we will begin taking into account a new signal in our rankings: the number of valid copyright removal notices we receive for any given site. Sites with high numbers of removal notices may appear lower in our results....

Only copyright holders know if something is authorized, and only courts can decide if a copyright has been infringed; Google cannot determine whether a particular webpage does or does not violate copyright law. So while this new signal will influence the ranking of some search results, we won’t be removing any pages from search results unless we receive a valid copyright removal notice from the rights owner.

That's the news from Silicon Valley, one of the three principal battlefields in the Copyright Wars that have been raging, on and off, since the downfall of the SOPA/PIPA legislation earlier this year. You remember that, right? It would have effectively shut down the unfettered sharing of content that defines the Internet. The legislation would have passed, had it not been for an eleventh-hour push by the digerati. Most dramatically, Wikipedia went dark for a day, cutting off humanity from access to the sum of human knowledge.

It was effective. But it now appears that major, well-established technology companies like Google are ready to play ball with Hollywood, another battlefield in the Copyright Wars (the third front is obviously Washington). The Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) expressed...pleasure? at Google's announcement:

We are optimistic that Google’s actions will help steer consumers to the myriad legitimate ways for them to access movies and TV shows online, and away from the rogue cyberlockers, peer-to-peer sites, and other outlaw enterprises that steal the hard work of creators across the globe. We will be watching this development closely – the devil is always in the details – and look forward to Google taking further steps to ensure that its services favor legitimate businesses and creators, not thieves.

The contrast between those two statements — one a terse press release full of "wait and see" language, the other a careful technocratic parsing of an alteration to perhaps the most important computer code on Earth — is vivid evidence that although the business models of Silicon Valley and Hollywood are probably incompatible, Hollywood considers its own business model rather more compatible with the future than Silicon Valley's.

Even though Hollywood lost the SOPA/PIPA battle, it isn't backing down on copyright in principle. It has the law on its side in this respect because copyright continues to be protected as a sort of monopoly, designed to subsidize creators. That said, copyright itself is being redefined by the rapid pace of innovation on the Internet. And while that innovation might look superficially legitimate, it occupies a vast "grey" area, trenchantly defined by Fred Wilson, who has taken the lead among venture capitalists in defining the debate about copyright from the Silicon Valley perspective (although Fred is in New York — but we're talking about a Silicon Valley of the mind here):

It would be best if a competitive marketplace developed for copyright whitelists and blacklists. The list providers would use signals like number of valid takedown notices and a host of other data points, ideally provided by the marketplace of services and platforms, to produce real time lists of what services are fully compliant (whitelist), what services are blatantly violating copyright (blacklist), and everyone else (greylist).

Being on the greylist would not hamper a new service from entering the market. All new services built by three engineers in a loft would start out on the greylists. But over time they could get onto the whitelists by properly respecting copyright in their service. Whitelisted content services would benefit in the same way that whitelisted services benefit in the word of email.

Fred is basically arguing for a sort of innovator's purgatory here, with Hollywood (and Big Content generally) looking the other way on the assumption that fast-growth companies with no real means to respect copyright in the traditional sense will inevitably graduate from the greylist to the whitelist and enter the digital kingdom of heaven. 

This is going to be a stretch for the MPAA. Black or grey, it's going to call theft what it really thinks it is — Theft! — and bring Washington back into the picture. It's only a matter of time. Everyone I've talked to about the Copyright Wars says that no one in Washington is paying attention right now. But both Silicon Valley and Hollywood are. And they're slowly angling for another showdown.

Both are also making subtle adjustments. Google is using the power of its veritable monopoly over search to reassure Hollywood that it's not just sitting idly by. Hollywood, meanwhile, is at least rhetorically separating overtly criminal online activities ("outlaw"; "rogue"; "thieves") from acceptable activity.

But don't forget that Hollywood knows full well that if it gives too much, the Silicon Valley metabolism will gobble up content, radically rearrange the means of distribution, and drive prices down. Hollywood favors none of the those outcomes. And that's why it's showing, in its reaction to Google's search change, that even thought it's willing to play ball, the game it's willing to play is hardball.

Follow Matthew DeBord and the DeBord Report on Twitter. And ask Matt questions at Quora.