Google Copies Everything. Is That Legal?

Noam Cohen

brings up the last taboo subject in the search-engine world:

The law has largely been silent on how much copying is fair use by search


How much copying? A search engine spiders (ie copies) everything.

That’s the whole point of having a search engine. So far, we’ve managed to get

along with a combination of robots.txt (which is a crude but reasonably effective

tool), and the online equivalent of "don’t ask, don’t tell". What’s

quite clear is that no one is relying on the "fair use" doctrine to

support what the search engines are doing.

At the moment, there’s a general but largely unspoken assumption that if you

put something freely online, then you are OK with people copying it. Indeed,

the very act of looking at content in a web browser involves downloading (ie

copying) that content. So if you create content designed to be seen in a web

browser, it’s assumed that you’re OK with people copying it.

But as Cohen demonstrates, these things aren’t black and white. People might

be OK with the copying which happens when individuals view web pages, but not

OK with the copying which happens when individuals deliberately move their copy

of the content from their browser cache to their hard drive. Or they might be

OK with search engines spidering the content in the short term, but not OK with

the search engines then remembering that content in perpetuity. (That’s one

of the distinctions that the proposed Automated Content Access Protocol is intended

to draw.)

There are legal and ethical grey areas galore. For instance, there’s a website

with a photo of me

holding a mop. I can order a download of that photo from the website for

$100. Alternatively, I can just download the original photo directly by pointing

my web browser at a

certain address on the exact same website. Is it unethical for me to footle

around on the website until I find that address? Once I’ve found the address,

is it unethical for me to save the photo on my hard drive, rather than merely

keeping it in my browser cache? And once it’s there, is it unethical for me

to then print it out as many times as I like, for personal use? And ethics aside,

where does the law stand on these issues? All of these questions are highly


For the time being, nearly everybody benefits from keeping such questions in

legal limbo: there are precious few businesses which would like to see Google

put out of business by a court which determined it was illegal to spider the

web. Sooner or later, however, these issues are going to be litigated. Expect

an enormous amount of noise when that finally happens.

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One Response to Google Copies Everything. Is That Legal?

  1. G Priest says:

    The fallacy of the Internet is that users believe that what they post is copyright.
    In no way can anything posted on a web site or chat site be copyrighted. You cannot copyright what you say in the street and this applies. It is allowed free reign.
    The only way the Internet can be copyright is where the Web site is paid entry. You are invited to purchase a copy for your own use, or to invite others to purchase from the site by your agency. Clearly in that case, the owner of the copyright is selling you a licence to use the item.

    So if you post your possessions for free on a site, then you have forgo-ed your right to copyright on that possession. So if you want to retain copyright don’t give your stuff away.

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