Google Wants to Play Tag

I see it as an issue of 'Who owns the content being displayed?' Google does not own the content, and when it uses the content of others to make money, it often will be violating the intellectual property laws.

-- Attorney Terence Ross on the Google Toolbar's new autolink feature

I can understand the appeal of the argument that anything that exists on your computer is yours to edit, archive, or transform as you see fit. Roger Benningfield sums it up nicely: "My house, my rules."

But we don't seem to be living in that world with our software, and I'd like to see the legal foundation of the belief that we're living there with Web pages and other electronic documents.

Autolink edits Web pages, making subtle inline changes to text while presenting them at their original URLs, which implies the original author created the transformed work.

Even if you accept the legality of these edits, there should be more regard for the notion that something presented under your name is actually your work.

Software that manipulates digital content in transit should not present it as if no changes were made.

Comments

Rogers: "Software that manipulates digital content in transit should not present it as if no changes were made."

So what if Google were to add a little Autolink icon next to every piece of text it linkifies?

Or what if moving the mouse over a piece of linkified text caused a Javascript bubble to pop up, saying "This is a Google Toolbar Autolink to XYZ.com"?

Rogers, consider asking the "usual suspects" who have already weighed in, to stifle. We've already heard from Benningfield, Bowers, Levine and Schwartz. We know how they feel. Now, let's have a discussion about this, without them ruling the show. How do we do that?

Most discussion here draws from the same crowd of technologists. I'd love to get some input on this from other precincts, especially from intellectual property attorneys, and will post links as I find them.

Autolink edits Web pages

At my request: it doesn't modify the web page until I tell it to by pressing the "AutoLink" button.

which implies the original author created the transformed work

Implies to who? It's obvious to me that Google has transformed the work, because I told it to; much as it's obvious to me when Google Toolbar has applied search highlighting.

I think most users of Google Toolbar are smart enough to determine that changes were made as a result of pressing the button.

To take an analogue: the Toolbar's AutoFill button, when pressed, populates fields on web forms with information. Does anyone really think that information was present in the author's original version of the form? No: it's obvious that the Toolbar is the agent of that transformation.

should not present it as if no changes were made

As others have commented, the Google-ified links do provide visual feedback (a changed cursor and a tooltip) of their Googly nature when they're hovered over.

It feels as if you're ignoring both these points (the transformation is user-initiated, not automatic; and the transformed links are identified as Google-supplied) in favour of a knee-jerk "Google rewrote my pages without my consent! Evil Google!"

Well, no. I made the decision to rewrite your page; Google was the tool I used to do it.

(Arguably, IE's "accessibility options" perform similar transformations: not only do they allow the browser to overrule fonts, sizes, and colours on the author's original work, but they also allow application of a user stylesheet; something which could significantly transform the work.)

Rogers, can I ask why this ended up as a separate post and thread? I thought that the discussion going on in the previous thread was getting good, with some well-thought-out and in-depth responses that were generating interesting ideas. Why cut off that discussion from this one?

Rogers: "Software that manipulates digital content in transit should not present it as if no changes were made."

Since Google Autolink kicks in after the page has loaded - by user request, and you seem to suggest that this is manipulation "in transit", I'm surprised you are not complaining about the changes Internet Explorer has made to your page without your consent, and without the consent of its users.

Internet Explorer has a massive chunk of code that error corrects HTML. So it changes the meaning of the content by adding bits and pieces to the markup - without your consent. For instance, take this page in Internet Explorer and do a File > Save As... and save it locally. Now open the saved html file in a text editor - notice the additional markup in the page - did you put the tbody? Did you uppercase all the HTML elements, did you camel case all the attributes? Now this is a fundamental change - changing markup changes the structure, thus the meaning of content.

There is a way to opt-out of this mangling of your content - write it in XHTML and send it using the mime-type application/xhtml+xml and use something that's not Internet Explorer to view the output.

Yet no-one complains about that. Or babelfish for that matter.

Rogers, can I ask why this ended up as a separate post and thread?

I posted the new link to call attention to the IP attorney quoted by CNet. I wasn't trying to cut the last discussion off, but experience here has usually been that people abandon an entry after 24 hours.

As for other changes, Isofarro, I've acknowledged that I support pop-up ad blockers, so the idea that I'm against trivial things like the capitalization of tag names is off the mark.

I just think the addition of inline links to a Web page, identified only by a tooltip, is a much more dramatic, less innocuous change.

I just think the addition of inline links to a Web page, identified only by a tooltip, is a much more dramatic, less innocuous change.

Um, why? Because of the hoo-ha about Smart Tags? Because it's one of Dave Winer's bugbears? I hear a lot of people's guts talking here.

That was then; and the IP attorney that CNET called up has obviously not paid much interest in the web over the past year or so, since there have been bookmarklets and Firefox extensions doing this long before Google. Talk to someone who studied Jacques Derrida, and you may get a more informed answer.

The fact that a lot of people are doing something doesn't mean it's legal. That IP attorney whose opinion you're dismissing represented Dow Jones and other publishers in a lawsuit against Gator for putting its pop-up ads on other people's content. You can question his conclusions, but he certainly seems to be professionally involved in exactly this kind of issue.

That IP attorney whose opinion you're dismissing represented Dow Jones and other publishers in a lawsuit against Gator for putting its pop-up ads on other people's content.

In which case, to quote Mandy Rice-Davies: 'He would say that, wouldn't he?' It's an apples-to-oranges comparison, to begin with.

Now, if we can find an IP lawyer representing a site that uses banners heavily -- say, the newly purchased About.com -- that decides to sue the makers of ad and pop-up blockers, we have the basis for a debate.

You'll find comments from me online, showing my opposition to Smart Tags. The point of comparison then was Third Voice. But a lot has changed, not least the proliferation of unwanted content, and the adoption of personal, opt-in filtering by major ISPs.

If Google is hounded by the usual suspects here, or worse, if litigation is involved, it'll have chilling effects on all sorts of user-side tools, not least ones designed to improve accessibility for those with disabilities.

I think the big issue with this is that it will allow other people to profit from my content. I don't really give a hoot about the whole "derivative works" thing -- if people want to change the layout or appearance of my site to suit them or if they have a disability then that's fine, but I do care that someone else can profit from my hard work without my permission. Google should provide some sort of opt-out mechanism (via meta tags or something in robots.txt)...

Mat, say that you post something about how you're really enjoying reading the latest Grisham book (and oddly post the ISBN number, since that's necessary when we're talking about the toolbar), and I then slide over to Amazon, search for it, and buy it. OK, right? Amazon's making a profit.

Now, say that I read about the Toolbar, and learn that by choosing to install it, it'll make the cycle of read-about-a-book, switch-to-another-website, search-for-the-book, purchase-the-book a lot quicker and easier. So I install the Toolbar, and on your next post about a book you're enjoying, I click on AutoLink and then have a link right there to let me purchase your book. Amazon's still making a profit, and perhaps Google is getting a cut of that profit, a fact I'm OK with because they made my experience as a user easier.

Why is this bad?

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