August 18, 2017

Archives for February 2005

Google AutoLink: Doesn't Cross the Line, Yet

Google’s new Toolbar includes a feature called AutoLink that adds hyperlinks to certain content in Web pages. For example, if it spots a street address in the page, it hyperlinks the address to Google Maps; if it spots the ISBN number for a book, it hyperlinks it to that book’s page on Amazon.

Some people are unhappy about this, seeing it as a violation of Google’s famous “don’t be evil” rule. I don’t see the problem – at least not yet. (Others think it is a strategic mistake by Google, which it may be. I’m not considering that question here.)

Thus far, AutoLink is applied to a page only when the user installs certain versions of the Google Toolbar. The user also has an explicit switch to turn AutoLink on and off. Nothing is going to happen unless the user asks for it, so it’s hard to see how the interests of sophisticated users are harmed. (The story might be different for novice users, if the feature is presented in a way that tends to confuse them about which hyperlinks came from the original site author. I haven’t looked at that issue.)

What about the interests of website authors? If Google is rewriting my site without my permission, that may affect my copyright interests in my page. In the same way that ad-blocking software may harm a site author’s business, an overly aggressive page-rewriting tool could potentially erode the site author’s ability to generate revenue via hyperlinks on the page. For example, if I mention a product and hyperlink to it via an online store’s affiliates program, I can get revenue if one of my readers clicks through the link and buys the product. If Google adds hyperlinks to other stores (or, worse yet, replaces my hyperlink with one of theirs), this will cost me money.

A site author could argue that the rewritten page is a derivative work, created without permission, and thus infringes copyright. Can the user be held responsible for this? Can Google?

I don’t know the legally correct answer to that question, but it’s interesting to think about whether it’s fair to allow the kind of rewriting that Google is doing. (I’m using “fair” in the ordinary sense here, not in the legalistic sense of “fair use”.) I think that what Google is doing now is fair. Links are added only at the user’s request and only in limited circumstances (street addresses, package tracking numbers, ISBNs, and vehicle ID numbers), and the original site author’s links are apparently left intact. If the system expands too far, it could cross the line, but it hasn’t done that yet.

(Andrew Grossman at Tech Liberation Front has an interesting post about this, if you can ignore the gratuitous ad hominem attacks. He’s right that this shouldn’t been seen as an antitrust issue.)

Broadcast Flag in Court

Tomorrow the DC Circuit will hear arguments in the case challenging the FCC’s authority to impose the Broadcast Flag regulation. The case will determine whether the FCC can control the design of computers, in the name of copyright. It will also determine whether the ill-conceived Broadcast Flag rule will be imposed.

Today’s New York Times has a disappointing story, by Tom Zeller Jr., rehashing the arguments about the Broadcast Flag. I say it’s disappointing because it reiterates without comment the MPAA’s logically disconnected hash of arguments about the Broadcast Flag. I think the press has a responsibility, at the very least, not to let logically fallacious arguments pass without comment.

The article starts by describing Mike Godwin downloading an episode of the Showtime series “Huff.” After some scene-setting, we read this:

The M.P.A.A. has argued that without the broadcast flag rule, content creators would have no incentive to provide digital content over the airwaves, because people could simply pluck video streams out of the air and redistribute them to millions of viewers over the Internet.

“It’s very simple,” said Fritz Attaway, a vice president and Washington general counsel for the M.P.A.A. “Without the broadcast flag, high-value content would migrate to where it could be protected.”

In practical terms, such “protected” places would be cable and satellite systems where digital content can be more easily scrambled, encrypted or otherwise controlled, leaving broadcast networks at a distinct disadvantage in the new digital marketplace.

The fallacy here should be pretty obvious. “Huff” is already distributed only in a “protected” place – a premium cable channel – and it’s available for infringing downloaders. (Other cable and satellite offerings are similarly available on P2P.) This is not evidence that cable-like protection is needed for broadcast. To the contrary, it’s evidence that the “protection” of cable-like DRM is illusory.

Similarly, the article repeats without comment the MPAA argument that they will be forced to withhold high-resolution broadcast service unless the Broadcast Flag is imposed. This argument couldn’t be more wrong in its view of broadcasters’ incentives.

In fact, P2P infringement gives broadcasters a powerful incentive to offer higher-quality, higher-resolution content.
High-res content makes legitimate broadcast service more attractive to viewers. P2P versions can’t match these increases in resolution because doing so would make P2P files much bigger, clogging P2P systems with enormous files and making downloads much slower. If broadcasters have to “compete against free” their best hope is to actually compete, by improving their product – especially when the competitor can’t match the improvement.

If the Broadcast Flag actually did reduce infringement, then imposing it would only reduce broadcasters’ incentive to switch to high-res broadcast. Looking at the evidence, though, it could hardly be more clear that the Broadcast Flag won’t reduce the availability of P2P content at all. Even ignoring the Flag’s many technical loopholes, the best it could possibly offer is the same level of protection that cable content gets today. The evidence is overwhelming that that level is insufficient to keep programs off the P2P networks. Remember Huff?

The real story here, for an enterprising reporter, lies in how the MPAA convinced the FCC to mandate the Broadcast Flag despite offering only these weak arguments in the public proceeding.

More on the Cato DRM Paper

I wrote yesterday about the new Cato Institute paper on the economics of peer-to-peer and anti-copying technology, which argues that everything will be okay in the online-music market because competition will force vendors to offer consumer-friendly products. I agree that a competitive market would have this effect. But how competitive is the market?

One of the more interesting sections of the Cato paper is about interoperability (pp. 8-9), or the ability of different DRM systems to work together. If a buy a file in one system, can I move it to another system? If two devices implement different DRM systems, can I transfer a file from one device to the other? If my DRM vendor goes out of business, do I lose access to my files?

The Cato paper says that DRM interoperability is good, and that progress is being made. I agree with the first part but I’m not so sure about the second. It’s not clear that we can rely on the DRM vendors to make their products interoperable – they have little incentive to help their customers switch to competitors’ products. Are there alternatives? Here’s the Cato paper:

Unilateral solutions may exist. In its present Harmony service, RealNetworks enables the compatibility of its RealPalyer Music Store tracks with both Apple’s iPod players and players compatible with Windows Media Audio (WMA). RealNetworks acomplished that by producing WMA files and integrating Windows Media Player on the user’s PC (both of which are permitted by Microsoft) and by reverse engineering Apple’s FairPlay DRM file format (which Apple may yet legally contest). In another potential solution, RapidSolution Software of Germany now offers software (called Tunebite) that allows users to re-record any file played on a PC by simple loopback through the PC’s audio card; songs are stored in an open format for later use. Parties differ as to whether the technology legally breaches access protection.

In other words, these products provide public benefits, but they might be illegal. One would expect, at this point, a policy discussion about why it might be wise to ensure that such products are legal. But that is not forthcoming. The authors just change the subject and talk about something else.

This flaw – extolling the virtues of competition, but failing to follow up by recommending pro-competition policies – seems to run throughout the otherwise excellent Cato paper. It makes sense to rely on market competition to blunt the potential downside of DRM. That strategy will only work if we adopt pro-competition policies, or at least reverse the anti-competition aspects of our current policy. Talking about competition is good; but having competition is much better.