In a headline-grabbing comment last week, Pinto Balsemão, head of the European Publishers Council, said that the Internet cannot continue to be free, as it has been for the last decade.
He wasn't suggesting that publishers make all their sites pay-per-view, but that search engines could not and should not be able to search for content freely.
The gripe was aimed directly at Google, but it seemed to me that it was also a broadside against bloggers, podcasters and even academicians, as Balsemão was attacking fair-use principles, too.
His most telling remark was reported everywhere: "It is fascinating to see how these companies 'help themselves' to copyright-protected material, build up their own business models around what they have collected, and parasitically, earn advertising revenue off the back of other people's content."
This is like saying that the travel industry and the airlines are building up their business models around cities like Paris — making money from other people's hard work.
Is there some convoluted European logic here that eludes me?
Take publisher A. Put A's content online. Does publisher A make more money or less without Google in the picture? Does its site have more visitors or fewer without Google in the picture?
All these jokers have stat packages. They know exactly how many visitors come directly from a Google search.
My educated guess: At least a third of all visitors come via Google or some other search mechanism.
So by this weird logic, this additional attention is somehow bad.
And what's with this notion that Google is "helping itself"?
Are there Google books that are simply copies of other books? Is that what he's imagining?
If I were this guy, I'd be more concerned about Google charging hard money to be included in its search engine.
"Yeah, we'll index you and put you on the search engine — FOR A FEE!" That's the fear Americans have regarding Google. We're apparently smarter than Europeans.
For all practical purposes, Google, Yahoo!, and MSN are doing the online publishers a huge favor by expediting the personal research and discovery process, as will anyone who wants to get into this game in the future. This is hardly "helping themselves."
Google makes money by operating a complex software system that includes a specialized ad server. And it needs to spend a lot of money in overhead to sell those ads, too. This is not a free ride.
So what's really going on here? Isn't this really about Europeans' simple jealousy and resentfulness?
Google is an American company. Yahoo! is an American company. AOL is an American company. Microsoft is an American company. These companies control search worldwide.
Balsemão and the Europeans hate the situation, and this is one time they cannot blame George Bush. This time it's their own sluggish reaction time and lack of vision that allowed this situation to happen.
This complaint does point out that the copyright laws are flawed and old-fashioned, though. And these laws must be fixed.
By some interpretations, caching a New York Times article on your hard drive is a violation of copyright law, but since the The New York Times is online and the browser in conjunction with the operating system does this caching for you, how is the individual responsible?
Should Microsoft be sued for an ongoing broad-ranging copyright breach? Balsemão probably thinks so.
Since every judge in the world probably uses Google to get his work done efficiently, you can be certain that nothing will come from these complaints. Although you never know. I wouldn't be surprised if someone in Europe began to demand that Google be nationalized.
In fact, it's too late for these sorts of complaints. And this particular Balsemão complaint is stupid, naïve, idealistic, and counterproductive.
In fact, it's reactionary. How many people who use computers in the 21st century go a single day without hitting the Google site once or twice?
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