On Friday Google announced that it would start to downgrade the search results of sites which have “high numbers” of copyright takedown notices. Make no mistake, this is a major step forward and is something record labels have been pushing for. Over the last year labels and their trade bodies including the RIAA, IFPI and BPI, have shifted some of the emphasis of their anti-piracy efforts from pursuing the symptoms of piracy (e.g. suing file sharers themselves) to tackling piracy at source (e.g. blocking domains and search results). Though there are ‘freedom-of-Internet-speech’ issues surrounding this approach, it makes sound strategic sense, with a much higher potential degree of effectiveness, and without the PR own-goal of taking your own consumers to court.
But just as domain blocking faces numerous technical challenges such as VPNs and proxy servers (see my previous post for more details) so Google’s search de-prioritization move has chink-filled armour:
- Google’s takedown process is imperfect. Google has made major strides in working with copyright owners during the last year, with many labels reporting marked improvements in the takedown process. But the process still has flaws, such as arbitrary limits on the number of claims. Also the process is resources intensive, both for Google and rights owners. So takedown efforts and the resulting list of key infringers is going to lean towards the short head rather than the long tail. Which means the most popular destinations will be hit most while the new up-and-comers will have an opportunity to become established before they feel the effects of downgrading.
- Downgrading will impact individual site audiences relatively slowly. Search result downgrading will also be slow to impact the popular piracy sites whose established user bases will typically go direct to sites via bookmarks or use alternative discovery methods such as torrent trackers. Downgrading will impact their new user acquisition but existing audiences will dwindle more slowly.
- Why downgrade when you can block? If Google genuinely believes that the target sites warrant downgrading because of copyright infringement, then why only go as far as downgrading? Why not just all out block? Just how effective will downgrading be? Will the results drop down the page? Disappear off the front page? Or disappear beyond page 20? (I do not think, though, that there is a case for Google to proactively increase the performance of licensed services as some are pushing for. Firstly these services should invest more heavily in SEO and SEM like everyone else has to. Secondly prioritizing results would fly in the face of Google’s entire search business proposition. And if music sites get a boost then why shouldn’t everyone else? There is strong precedent for Google downgrading – such as the recent link-farm downgrade – but not boosting).
- Some serial infringers are more equal than others. Veteran search guru Danny Sullivan, in typical fashion, managed to uncover a really interesting angle to the story: that Google-owned YouTube will not find itself on the downgrade ‘hitlist’ despite having more takedowns than probably any other site. Though this certainly smacks of double standards –and raises issues about separation of church and state – there is a pretty compelling case for ensuring YouTube remains readily accessible: namely that it is the #1 digital music app in the world. (Granted it may cannibalize many more valuable services, but that’s a separate issue that the industry and Google need to fix).
Of course, the entire takedown and downgrading strategy cannot be viewed in isolation. Google are a reluctant copyright enforcement force, as they make clear by ensuring that every DMCA-complaint blocked search result links through to http://www.chillingeffects.org/ (an Electronic Frontier Federation backed site that helps sites who have had DMCA takedown notices strike back at content owners.) Google are going down this path of ceding more ground to content owners not because of a strategic change of heart, but because they want something back. Whereas Apple has made paid content a success in the iTunes ecosystem, Google has thus far failed to achieve much in the Android ecosystem. (Or to put it more accurately, in the various Android ecosystems – which is of course one of the core problems for Google).
You Scratch My Back…
Google Play is Google’s big content play (no pun intended) and they want more in it from content owners, and they want to take it to more territories. Taking the action that they have done so is designed to make those prickly licensing conversations with rights owners that bit smoother. And Google may well get a lot of what they want. They’ve pretty much played hard ball so far, taking the position that they can bring more scale to the music industry than any other partner and so should be given preferential terms. And they back this position up with a pretty good poker face too, as illustrated by their refusal to meet label license fee demands for a point-and-play locker service and instead following Amazon’s lead in launching a DMCA compliant upload-and-play locker service. Now they can come back to the table with the ‘we’ve done what you asked us to do’ card in their hand.
Music industry, over to you, raise or fold?