Google downranks piracy sites

Amy Chozick / New York Times News Service /

Big media companies won a battle in the fight to combat online piracy Friday when Google said it would alter its search algorithms to favor websites that offered legitimate copyrighted movies, music and television.

Google said that beginning next week its algorithms would take into account the number of valid copyright removal notices that websites had received. Websites with multiple, valid complaints about copyright infringement may appear lower in Google search results.

“This ranking change should help users find legitimate, quality sources of content more easily — whether it’s a song previewed on NPR’s music website, a TV show on Hulu or new music streamed from Spotify,” Amit Singhal, Google’s senior vice president of engineering, wrote in a company blog post.

The entertainment industry, which has for years pressured Google and other Internet sites to act against online piracy, applauded the move.

“We are optimistic that Google’s actions will help steer consumers to the myriad legitimate ways for them to access movies and TV shows online,” Michael O’Leary, a senior executive vice president for the Motion Picture Association of America, said in a statement.

Cary Sherman, chief executive of the Recording Industry Association of America, also commended Google’s move.

“Google has signaled a new willingness to value the rights of creators,” he said in a statement.

But the two men expressed caution and urged Google to carry out the change with the vigor it adopted in combating pirated videos on YouTube, which Google owns.

“The devil is always in the details,” O’Leary said.

Sherman added, similarly, that changing the search algorithm “is not the only approach, and of course, the details of implementation will matter.”

The announcement comes just over six months after a heated battle between big media companies and technology companies, which were sparring over proposed legislation intended to crack down on pirated online content, particularly by rogue foreign websites.

In January, media companies like Viacom, Time Warner and the Walt Disney Co. backed two anti-piracy bills, one in the Senate and the other in the House of Representatives, while Internet activists and companies like Google and Facebook argued the bills would hinder Internet freedom. Buoyed by a huge online grass-roots movement, and aided by Wikipedia’s going black for a day in protest, the bills quickly died.

That tension has decreased somewhat as media companies have met with Silicon Valley executives over how to solve the problem to everyone’s satisfaction.

Google said it would not remove pages from copyright-infringing websites from its search engine unless it received a valid copyright removal notice from the rights’ owner.

“Only copyright holders know if something is authorized, and only courts can decide if a copyright has been infringed,” Singhal said.

Google has received copyright removal requests for over 4.3 million Web addresses in the last 30 days, according to the company’s transparency report. That is more than it received in all of 2009.