Here is what one effect of copyright law looks like online:
That's the little notice that appears at the bottom of the first page of Google's search results for the phrase "microsoft office free download." If you keep paging through Google's results, by page 20 or so you'll have just as many notices of content removal as you will have actual content. That's because these links pointed to illegal copies of Microsoft's proprietary software, which Microsoft requested be removed from Google Search.
Just how many requests Google receives to remove links from its search results is detailed in the company's new report, and the numbers are staggering. Google says that it is no longer unusual to receive more than 250,000 take-down requests in a single week -- more requests than it received in all of 2009. In the past month alone, copyright owners and the companies that represent them made 1.2 million requests to delete a result from Search.
By far the copyright owner with the biggest, most aggressive anti-copyright-infringement arm is Microsoft, which has notified Google of more than half a million URLs containing pirated Microsoft content in the past month. Of the million of requests Google received, the majority come from just a handful of reporting organizations -- roughly 20, according to Fred von Lohmann, Google's Senior Copyright Counsel. Because of the increasing volume, Google has a growing team of staff devoted to handling requests and deleting the offending search results. It's a "pretty serious resource commitment," said von Lohmann. Parts of the process are automated -- as any process dealing with that volume of tasks would need to be -- but von Lohmann says that humans do ensure that the requests aren't in error and that the content is actually in violation of a copyright.
Copyright owners and the companies that represent them used to alert Google to copyright infringement via email, fax, snail mail -- you name it. Last year, Google introduced a web form that streamlined the requests and made it easier and faster for Google to delete the URLs (Google says the average turnaround time is less than 11 hours). The web form has certainly led to the steep uptick in request, but companies are also policing more aggressively. According to von Lohmann, "One of the principal factors is that copyright owners . . . are getting increasingly sophisticated" at using technology to crawl the web for their proprietary material -- though not everyone who finds their content online illegally requests that Google remove the link from Search, instead they may go to the site directly and get the content removed. In that case, they sometimes prefer to have the link remain in Search -- a dead link that goes to nothing and frustrates people looking for the violating material.
At the heart of the report is a very Google sort of idea that better data will beget well-informed policies. "Obviously we know that there are policy makers in the United States and around the world that are considering how copyright laws should be changed for the digital age," says von Lohmann. Google wants "to make sure that those policy makers and the public have real-world data as they make decisions."