December 6, 2022

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.)


  1. Hit the “submit” button twice? (how come they’re timestamped more than 24h apart then?) Anyway, AOL-style “me too” posts aren’t really constructive, especially when it’s not even clear which point made by who you’re calling “good”.

  2. “is it OK for me to tell people the steps I took to modify the work – i.e. publish the algorythm to modify the work?”

    It damn well better be. It’s called “freedom of speech”. If any talk of modifying anything that might be copyrighted were forbidden where in Christ’s name would it end? Arrests of people caught publicly discussing a scratched CD, on the grounds that it could provide some bystander an idea that they can modify a copyrighted sound recording by such a method? Imprisonment of anyone told of the existence of photoshop, lest they digitize and alter a copyrighted photograph? The disappearance of suspected copyright counterrevolutionaries from their homes at 3am, with no due process, no phone calls, and no reappearance — ever? Seriously — where would the limits on speech and expression stop?

    This is getting out of hand. The evil information communists* who want state-sanctioned monopolies and ironclad control in place of free cultures and free markets must be stopped soon — they’re succeeding in getting even tech-savvy people thinking of some of their more extreme ideas about copyright as maybe-legit. 😛

    * Yeah I know that’s what they call copyright non-extremists and especially copyright abolitionists, but they’re the true commies — we want thriving markets while they want state sanctioned, state enforced monopolies and iron control; we want many alternatives and they want to spoon feed us a standard gruel in gulags of the mind based on the insipid model of “primetime television” only much, much worse. More expensive for one.

  3. If it is OK for me to modify ( but not republish a copyrighted work ) is it OK for me to tell people the steps I took to modify the work – i.e. publish the algorythm to modify the work?
    Suppose Negativland published an Algorythm ( or computer program ) to produce their famously infringing U2 Album from a U2 cd? You would have to own the U2 cd to listen to Negativland’s work so it wouldn’t be a substitute work, it would increase the value of U2’s original and the Algorythm could be used on other things.
    It is not the derivative work that is published but the process of derivement – but I guess with DRM on CD’s these days you would run afoul of the DCMA.

  4. The question is moot: I translate or autolink or don’t view adverts or view the source code of the page ON MY MACHINE. Now republishing it, posting a translation or a news aggregator well then that may be violating copyright as it pertains to publications of things but what I do with it on my own time in my own house IS MY OWN BUSINESS.
    Even the RIAA can’t stop me playing my vinyl records backward if I so choose.
    Sure stop me copying this derived work, well that is still legal but not deriving the work itself that is fine – and probably I can even show it to a few family members and friends depending on how much fair use is still left.

  5. It’s mangled, but the gist of it is still intact. Your own example paragraph shows that the results tend to be altered, but not in a way that seriously distorts meaning or effectively defames the author.

    Also, I think there’s some prevailing of level heads going on here, remarkable though this may seem — everyone knows the limits of current translation software as you said, so everyone knows that people will suspect a bad translation first if something in a page they put through a translation service shocks them.

  6. I think Fuzzy asked the right questions. Translations are unquestionably “derivative works,” and I have been amazed that there has been so little comment on the various “services” that automatically “translate” websites from one language to another. Even rudimentary experimentation with these sites reveals that they can introduce significant inaccuracies into text. (To see for yourself, use your favorite service to convert this message to Portuguese and then back to English.)

    I can imagine a mistranslation causing immense harm to the publisher of a website. Why is no one discussing this issue?

    Jim H.

    PS The following is Google’s version, but I have not found the other freely available services to be any better:

    I think that fuzzy fêz the right questions. The translations are unquestionably “works derivative,” and I was frightened that I had thus little commentary in the some “services” that automatically “translates” websites of a language to another one. Exactly the experimentation rudimentary with these significant places discloses that they can introduce inaccuracies in the text. (to see for yourself, it uses its favourite service to convert stops backwards this message the Portuguese and then to the English.) I can imagine one mistranslation to cause the immense damage when publisher of a website. Why nobody is arguing this edition?

  7. Changing the way that webpage is viewed is hardly a copyright issue. Framing it as one seems like a step toward a dangerous expansion of the reach of copyright.

    The way the webpage is viewed is largely up to the client and the client’s software. Pages look differently when I view them in Mozilla or MSIE or Lynx. By dropping, wholesale, large parts of mark-up, is there a copyright violation going on when I visit websites with a text based or cellphone based browswer? What if I change the default preferences in my browser to change the default background or link color or to optimize things for my CRT or LCD? We don’t want the answer to be yes here and, luckily, I don’t think it is.

    The way that data is manipulated and presented to a viewer should be left up to that viewer. Google isn’t forcing this on anybody so I don’t see the issue.

  8. Does the AutoLink toolbar run autonomously on a user’s computer, or does it communicate with Google when rewriting a page? If the former, how is that different from Mozilla’s page rendering controls?

    Or from underlining or making marginal notations while reading a book?

  9. aNonMooseCowherd says:

    If a browser allows a user to define style sheets that override a web site’s own style sheets, does that violate the copyright by letting the user make a derivative work? This may sound silly, but I think anyone dealing with HTML realizes that a given page will not look the same for everyone, depending on the user’s platform, browser, personal settings, and so on. Control freaks who want total (or near-total) control over the appearance can make every page an image. Then they would have a better claim against a browser or tool that changes the image. HTML isn’t an image; it’s a description of content, with suggestions about how to display it and what parts to display (e.g. a text browser will usually skip images but may display the ALT tags instead).

  10. Just to throw some mud in the nice clear water, if AutoLink violates copyright, then

    … does AltaVista Babel Fish violate copyright? It will make a derivative work (in a different language).

    … does the web proxy violate copyright? It will remove various HTML elements and thus create a derivative work.

    … does the Mozilla option to not automatically load images violate copyright? It will make a derivative work without graphics.

    … does the Mozilla pop-up blocker violate copyright? It will modify the EMCAscript to not present the website as the author intended.

  11. David Bolton says:

    Some websites are already deploying a technology like this- for example Experts Exchange- uses Vibrant Media’s IntelliTXT technology.

    Go to their site- click on one of the Hot Side Wide Solutions and scroll about 2/3rds down (past ads etc) – look for links with very bold black underlines. On Firefox moving the mouse over this pops up a Tooltip Sponsored Ad. Theres a link to Vibrant’s ‘What’s this’ as this.

    Quite nifty but I definitely wouldn’t want all web pages to have these. It was a nuisance 5 years ago when some worm installed these in my Internet Explorer.

  12. Jeffrey C. Ollie says:

    There is a Firefox plugin that performs a similar service:

    Author’ home page


    Mozilla Update

  13. the toolbar could probably easily be tweaked to recognize the creative commons noderivs licenses.

  14. Well, Ed… in your case the Creative Commons license you’ve chosen for your blog gives readers the option of making derivative works. So that would be moot.

    Even if you didn’t allow derivative works, if someone is using the Google toolbar with autolinks in the privacy of their own home or cubicle to transform your page, it’s arguable that, by clicking the Autolinks radio box, they’ve made an unathorized personal copy and then a derivative work of your site. However, it would likely still be kosher if the reader were to claim fair use if you sued them. However, what about contributory liability for Google a la the p2p cases?

  15. Here is an example which may ease understanding the copyright issue. Consider a desktop problem, which works thusly:

    user downloads and saves web page to disk
    user runs the program on the saved html file, the program produces another html file
    user views the output in browser

    I think this would be completely legal (at least here in Finland). If I understood correctly, AutoLink merely automates this process.

    Although the rewritten page might be derivative work, Google is not publishing or distributing it. It’s just providing a program or service for the each of the individual users to do the alteration for their own use.

    IANAL, but I think the crux of the issue is that the pages are altered per request of the user and distributed only to that certain user.

    (There are several web applications, often humorous, which alter the content of the pages.)

  16. Can authors opt-out, for example with a special meta header? This would further help to defuse a potential conflict.