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.)