Wednesday, August 15, 2012


"We will be watching this development closely and look forward to Google taking further steps to ensure that its services favor legitimate businesses and creators, not thieves."

I have put little of my art online, although I have a small selection of it on an old webpage. The main reason is that there seems little point to posting art online, but there is another: once you post something online, its basically public domain. Sure you can put all the copyright notices and watermarks on it you want, you can post warnings and requests. But once its out there, people will take it and use it for themselves.

On the whole, I'm fine with that, and I tend to treat art I find online as public domain as well. I almost never take the pictures or use art I scan on my blog here. I use Google Image search most of the time and look for an image related to what I'm writing about.

Which is odd, if you think about it. Youtube got nailed for copyright violations in a major way once Google bought them, and regularly gets copyright violation notices which they respond to by taking the videos down. But I have never heard a single instance of a Google Image copyright violation. Not once.

And you can search for hundreds of millions of images, download them, and use them as you wish in seconds on Google, or Bing, or any other image search. Some companies like image sellers such as Shutterstock or iStockPhoto will put a watermark (and an X) across the image to make them less useful, but people can edit that out pretty easily and most of the time who cares for a simple illustration?

Its odd, but in a way, its fitting. If you put your material out online for free for people to browse through, you've basically given up any rights to ownership and earnings. Its like handing your book for free to a billion people, then requiring everyone to pay you for it if they read it. Something placed in the public domain online... is public domain.

Yet I know that many do not see it that way. Google Images recently changed their system so that images that they get a copyright notice on are shuffled down to be lower on the pages. Abhinav Lal writes at ThinkDigital:
Google has slightly changed the way its search rankings work, using data of the number of copyright removal notices a site has got as a negative signal. The data comes from copyright infringement notices posted on Google’s 'Removing Content From Google' page.
Until given a valid copyright removal notice, they will not remove the images, only downgrade them so they are harder to find. And if you have to search past 3 pages or so, you're not finding what you were looking for most of the time, so people just quit. And of course, this effort applies to all web pages, not just images. If you have a website with copyrighted material you're giving away, that's going to be downgraded to once a notice is given.

I can see a lot of potential for mischief here. Don't like a blog? Give Google a copyright notice and suddenly nobody can find that blog's content unless they go 80 pages into the search engine. Hate someone's work? Copyright notice: now nobody can find their work any more. And so on. Youtube already has people who use copyright to control content. If something is embarrassing to Democrats, it tends to be copyright noticed within hours of posting and pulled off the site. Muslim groups like CAIR are meticulous about making sure no negative images or videos of Islam last long on Youtube, if possible.

So this policy makes mischief and abuse much easier. Right now, Google will pull a Blogger account if they get complaints, but it takes a few and you can get it put back up with a little effort - usually less than a day. But this system sounds very similar to Youtube's.

Google gets 4.3 million copyright notices a day, and for years its been working to deal with any copyright violations, but people have to realize we're in a different setting on the internet than with other media. If you publish something online, yes technically its yours, but you effectively gave it away to almost two billion people at the same time. That is a whole different ballgame than publishing a magazine or putting it on television.

On the other hand, if someone else puts your copyrighted material up against your will or without your knowledge (say, a song or a book), then that's another story. You didn't give it away, some guy stole your work and gave it away instead, and that's just theft.

So I think people need to reconsider their use of the internet if they want to retain ownership of content. And copyright laws need to reflect that new reality, something I've been saying for over a decade now.

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