Found hypocrisy; still searching for clarity

In case you haven’t heard, a few days ago Google started publicly accusing Microsoft’s Bing of stealing its search results.  Juan Carlos Perez over at PCWorld has published an interesting roundup of reactions to Google’s new “strategy” of public accusations:

While the merits of Google’s accusation are up for debate — Microsoft denies the charge — the fact that Google chose to complain in such a loud and agitated manner has become fertile ground for analysis and comment by industry observers.

Opinions range from those who view Google’s actions as hypocritical to others who say the company did the right thing by airing its grievance.

PCWorld’s link to Daniel Eran Dilger reaction over at Roughly Drafted is especially worth checking out.  Personally, I come down on the “Google is being hypocritical” side of things.  It’s hard to have the expansive view of copyright law and fair use that Google embraces for its own activities and then to complain with any legitimacy about Microsoft’s alleged behavior.

Unfortunately, copyright law in general (and fair use in particular) is notoriously unclear, malleable, and subject to judicial whims.  It’s doubtful that Google will actually sue Microsoft over this, so we may never know what the “answer” is.

However, even if a U.S. court upheld Microsoft’s right to copy Google’s search results (assuming that’s what happened here), that would only give us an answer (1) on these specific facts (2) as between parties willing to litigate (and maybe even (3) before that particular judge).  Given the high costs of litigation, most non-Fortune-500 copyright users claiming fair use rights usually find it is in their best interest to settle for a few thousand dollars when saddled with a copyright infringement lawsuit.  Indeed, there are companies based on this very business model that are out there suing people; the number of copyright infringement suits is rising.

This latest spat between Google and Microsoft is, to some extent, a sideshow, but it does highlight some of the problems that uncertainty breeds within copyright law.  I’m not worried about Microsoft’s ability to defend itself:  it’s a multi-billion dollar company with lawyers and PR specialists both in-house and on speed dial.  I am worried about the start ups that are seeking to be the next Google or Microsoft:  they generally can’t afford to get anywhere close to the line because they know that an infringement lawsuit may mean millions in legal fees and damages, so they back off and play it safe.

That’s the real cost of un-clarity in copyright law.

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