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Microsoft wags finger at Google

March 06, 2007

Google, on the defensive over its YouTube unit's inability to clamp down on video piracy, today faces the ultimate indignity: being lectured about ethics by its arch nemesis, Microsoft. In a blistering op-ed in the Financial Times, Microsoft lawyer Thomas Rubin blasts Google for being a cultural bully and trying to run roughshod over copyright owners. Regarding Google Book Search, Rubin writes,

Google has taken a unilateralist approach by contending that it is entitled to grab books off library shelves and copy them wholesale without obtaining the permission of the publishers and authors who own the copyright in those works ... This project may well bring significant commercial advantage to Google. By contrast, [copyright owners] could gain little or nothing from Google's plan.

Regarding YouTube, Rubin asserts that "nearly every major movie and television company ... has expressed deep concern over the large number of infringing videos available on Google's YouTube website. Google simply denies responsibility and appears to be trying wherever possible to skirt copyright law's boundaries."

In contrast to Google's alleged unilateralism, Rubin claims that Microsoft is taking a "collaborative" approach, working in "an open and transparent manner with content owners to minimize infringement, while at the same time licensing and offering a wide range of high-quality content that consumers can reliably locate and enjoy."

Rubin's article is just a preview of a broadside he will launch against Google in a speech today before the American Association of Publishers in New York. In that talk, according to the FT, Rubin will say that Google "systematically violates copyright, deprives authors and publishers of an important avenue for monetizing their works and, in doing so, undermines incentives to create."

While Rubin's accusations are nothing new - he's basically repeating back to the publishers their own oft-made charges against Google - the coordinated attack is nonetheless an audacious PR move by Microsoft. The company's trying to swap hats with its young rival, stealing Google's white hat while placing the black hat that it has worn so long on Google's head. No doubt, Google will launch a rhetorical counterattack, but that's surely part of Microsoft's plan. In a mud fight over copyright with Microsoft, Google can only be the loser.

UPDATE: Microsoft has released the full text of Rubin's speech. In addition to criticizing Google Book Search and YouTube, Rubin says that "Microsoft was surprised to learn recently that Google employees have actively encouraged advertisers to build advertising programs around key words referring to pirated software, including pirated Microsoft software. And we weren’t the only victims – Google also encouraged the use of keywords and advertising text referring to illegal copies of music and movies." Sniffs Rubin, "These are not the actions of a company that has the interests of copyright owners as one of its priorities."


"[Microsoft is] trying to swap hats with its young rival, stealing Google's white hat while putting the black hat that is has worn so long on Google's head."

I think many observers would agree that Google's white hat greyed some time ago and continues to darken (even if it still contrasts with Microsoft's jet-black chapeau). The flurry of "Google: the new Microsoft" articles started a couple of years ago, and while the approach they've taken on Book Search deserves points for boldness, it also seems to be a symptom of Google's now-Microsoft-like arrogance. And there have recently been contradictory quotes from the company regarding video copyright, with underlings saying things that then get "corrected" by CEO Eric Schmidt, suggesting that there's still a bit of organizational chaos for them to work through.

But it is fun to watch two companies that have too much power argue over which one is worse.

Posted by: Kendall Brookfeld [TypeKey Profile Page] at March 6, 2007 10:40 AM

> In a mud fight over copyright with Microsoft, Google can only be the loser.

Are you sure about that, Nick? How will Google lose? In the legal arena? They're facing lawsuits no matter what Micsoroft does. In the PR arena? For a considerable number of digirati and people under age 25 (and, I'll bet, a clear majority of digirati under age 25), a company that farts in the general direction of copyright is a company more than worthy of admiration. And I doubt most other people give a damn one way or another. Except in the fantasies of some IP lawyers, the term "copyright holder" does not conjure up images of a struggling artist. More likely, it conjures up the image of Sumner Redstone or some similar figure.

Posted by: Doug Lay [TypeKey Profile Page] at March 6, 2007 11:41 AM


You may be right, but I would argue that the more the public focuses on the question "Is Google a bully?" (which is the way Microsoft is teeing up the debate), the more tarnished Google's image will become. (A "clear majority of digirati under age 25" is probably a pretty small group when seen in the context of the public at large.)


Posted by: Nick Carr [TypeKey Profile Page] at March 6, 2007 11:50 AM

Lest we forget, the Google Book Search project is a quid pro quo arrangement: libraries that would otherwise be unable to digitize their holdings get that done for free; Google makes revenue through advertising in order to make it happen. Yes, copyright holders need to specifically request opting out of the program and *could be* potentially harmed, but I see no effort by Microsoft to create anything of equal public benefit.

I don't buy this white hat/black hat pr fest.

Posted by: Timothy Swan [TypeKey Profile Page] at March 6, 2007 12:00 PM

I would argue that for a decent percentage of the population (at least of those who care a whit about any of this stuff) for Microsoft to call anyone a bully will sound somewhat akin to the Oakland Raiders whining about dirty play by their opponents.

Posted by: Doug Lay [TypeKey Profile Page] at March 6, 2007 12:02 PM

Google will "deprive authors and publishers of an important avenue for monetizing their works and, in doing so, undermine incentives to create" the same way the development of the public library system has.

In other words, it won't. And in fact, will enhance the rewards for many.

Posted by: Shawn Petriw [TypeKey Profile Page] at March 6, 2007 02:16 PM

"(A "clear majority of digirati under age 25" is probably a pretty small group when seen in the context of the public at large.)"

Yeah, but who else is even listening to this debate? If MS wants to make Google look bad in public, there are certainly ways to do so--but I would argue that going after them over copyright law is not going to do it. In the universe of "people who know or care about this sort of thing", taking a strong copyright stance is not exactly the height of popularity. In the universe of "people who don't know or care about this sort of thing", well...

Posted by: Meelar [TypeKey Profile Page] at March 6, 2007 04:18 PM

Perhaps the reason why Microsoft feels so strongly about Google Book Search is not because of their morals and ethics (or lack thereof) in relation to copyright but rather because it is competitnr. In October 2005, Microsoft launched MSN Book Search (see press release at http://tinyurl.com/dkvu3); they've recently completed a digitisation project at the British Library (see http://www.bl.uk/news/2005/pressrelease20051104.html). I'm surprised no one else brought this up.


Posted by: e_bruton [TypeKey Profile Page] at March 7, 2007 09:40 AM

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