Google Thievery

Google’s a thief. The company steals people’s copyrighted material (Rupert Murdoch); perhaps it’s misappropriating hot news (Associated Press); it’s even planning to replace Maureen Dowd! (Is this bad?) Some comments are even stronger: Robert Thomson of the Wall Street Journal called Google “tech tapeworms,” and The Guardian‘s Henry Porter calmly assesses the company as “a parasite… delinquent and sociopathic… [with] a brattish, clever amorality.” Even supporters like Cory Doctorow are worried about the company.

As Wilt Chamberlain said, nobody roots for Goliath. What caught me, though, was how Porter frames the root problem:

Google is in the final analysis a parasite that creates nothing, merely offering little aggregation, lists and the ordering of information generated by people who have invested their capital, skill and time. On the back of the labour of others it makes vast advertising revenues…

Google’s stealing, then, deprives content creators of the sweat of their labors. They’re reaping where they have not sown. Intuitively, this appeals. What’s fun for me is that I think it’s ultimately a daft argument.This contention picks up labor-desert theory, most commonly associated with philosopher John Locke. For Locke, people possess only their body and their labor. Once we use our labor to create something new from the common store of ideas, concepts, and facts, we deserve a property right in that new thing; to do otherwise would be to harm us. Newspaper reporters create stories from the world’s facts and thus we might want to reward that labor. So far, so good.

But labor-desert theory raises a hard question: how much of the new thing really derives from your labor? Reporters depend on facts, quotes, standard journalistic constructs and techniques… their labor is a necessary component, but it’s not the sole reason for a story’s value. Put it this way: imagine I lease a Chevy Impala. I use it to start a thriving, highly profitable pet supply delivery business. Without the Chevy, I’d be taking the subway or biking – not good options when carrying kibble. But you wouldn’t see autoworkers or Hertz employees lined up outside my apartment asking for a cut of the profits. How is the Google situation different?

My sense is that what’s really at work is what Margaret Radin put forth as “personhood”: people feel less possessive about a car they’ve created than a story they’ve written. (Why is that? Building a car is much harder.) The story is mine; I have a right to determine how it’s used, and to receive benefits that flow from that use. Plus, creators focus on what lawyers call “but-for” causation: but for my labor, this story wouldn’t exist. Hence, my control over it deprives no one. But there are lots of reporters, and they often file very similar stories. There are even citizen journalists and bloggers who can do (some of) the same work. So, “but-for” doesn’t really work.

At base, I don’t think this is about copyright, or “hot news” misappropriation, or IP at all. It’s psychological. Content industries are in massive flux that’s painful for those who work in them. The old intermediaries (record labels, movie studios, the New York Times editorial staff) are in retreat, and new ones (Google, iTunes, Digg) are on the rise. The invective derives from dislocation, from uncertainty, and from resistance to change. But things will be OK. After all, the MPAA’s Jack Valenti once compared the VCR to the Boston Strangler, and the little boxes turned out to be a boon for the movies.

Steal away!

4 Responses to “Google Thievery”

  1. In writing this article, you’ve only aggregated quotes and information from other people and organized them so they highlight a certain worldview (which someone else came up with), and all within a certain rhetorical approach other people worked out before you came along. You’re nothing but a plagiarist yourself!

    On that note, I have it on good authority that every single electron that passed through your computer as you wrote this post was used by someone else before, so you’re a thief too!

  2. The people you quote for the “evils” of Google are wrong for a number of reasons.

    First, the technology developed by Google didn’t come free. Tens of millions of dollars have been invested by Google in technologies with no guaranty that they would work, or that anyone would care to use them. Content providers assume, somehow, that the complex platforms that make search engines, etc. work are free, or without risk. Google was willing to take that chance and has, so far, seen a good return on its investment. The content providers have not been willing to take that risk.

    Second, nothing is preventing content providers from building platforms to compete with Google. They have chosen not to do so, but instead complain about Google’s willingness to do so. If Google is, as alleged, siphoning off money that should be going to the content providers, then let the content providers develop their own, competitive platforms and capture that “lost” revenue themselves. Every website can choose whether to allow search engines to index the site or not. It’s as easy as setting a “switch” in the robot.txt file. If content providers believe that Google or other search engines are unfairly exploiting their content by indexing it on their databases, it’s a simple thing to opt out of future indexing.

    But to do so would be suicide for these websites, since search engines make content accessible. Without them no website would be successful (and most would be invisible to users). Yet, Google doesn’t charge anyone for being indexed and made accessible. There is again an enormous cost for Google to continuously update its search engine to make the most recent materials posted by content providers accessible. Google provides the front end for content websites so that users can find them for free. Snippets are how users find items posted on websites, and not a substitute for those sites. Without the ability to use snippets in indexing news stories, users would find it difficult to locate the content they want quickly and easily.

    The fact that newspapers have not successfully exploited the free accessibility provided by Google is the content providers” fault, not Google’s.

  3. I mostly agree with this analysis, but I think the argument misses an important point – gathering information and news, no matter how public – is expensive, and if we allow others to freely use it without compensation then folks will stop spending the money to gather it. This is not a personhood issue, or even an IP one, but rather a simple incentive based issue. The Supreme Court recognized this years ago with hot news – there are drawbacks to dissemination of aggregated information.

    You say: “But there are lots of reporters, and they often file very similar stories. There are even citizen journalists and bloggers who can do (some of) the same work. So, ‘but-for’ doesn’t really work.”

    I’m not following this line of reasoning – yes, there are lots of reporters out there, but the claim isn’t that Google hired its own journalists to reframe public information, or that the reporters are writing similar stories.

    Even disregarding copyright, the claim is that Google directly copied and republished information – information that was costly to gather – that other news organizations have to pay for, and that’s not fair competition.

    I think that information aggregation is a good thing, but I would hardly call concerns on the other side “daft.”

  4. @John: If you think this is plagiarism, you should see the rest of my writing! And I specifically requested *new* electrons for the blog post. I hold WordPress responsible.

    @Michael Scott: I agree completely about the value of aggregators. The argument seems to be not that Google fails to provide value in the form of increased traffic, but that Google should share some of the value it realizes (from AdWords, for example) from its intermediary role. The content providers view this as a sort of suicide pact: if they stop permitting Google to index them, then their revenue falls, but so does Google’s. What they perceive as unfair is that their exposure from this opt-out is greater than Google’s. I do wonder what the precise notion of “fairness” at issue is here, and how we distinguish it from rent-seeking.

    @Michael Risch: So, to be precise, I only called the fairness arguments “daft” – deliberately. There is more grip to the incentives arguments, but not a lot more. IP maximalism always assumes that more protection = more production. But it’s not clear to me that we need to depend on these particular content producers for news, nor that Google’s actions in particular reduce incentives. (The opt-out option seems to address this, no?)

    The hot news concept has always seemed to me to be in considerable tension with copyright, both in terms of pre-emption (though NBA v. Motorola of course goes the other way) and constitutionally (facts are out, under Feist). It’s industrial regulation by the Supreme Court. I’m skeptical courts are well-positioned to perform this task. And cries of looming disaster from entrenched industries are not always right – see the VCR, MP3 player, TiVo, radio, piano roll, etc. The problem with incentives here is that it’s an empirical argument, and we haven’t seen a compelling argument in favor of “hot news” – there’s plenty of argument by anecdote, but to my mind that doesn’t warrant granting an information monopoly that exists without copyright’s balances and checks.

    Thanks, to each of you, for reading and for commenting! It’s great.