Bruce Sanford and Bruce Brown commented in the WSJ on “Google and the Copyright Wars” (11/12). Many are focused on the status of orphan works in the Google Books project, but Sanford and Brown argue that the idea of fair use and its application by search engines is the controversy’s center, not orphan works. Sanford and Brown would say that a search engine’s use of the web’s content is definite and definitely unfair.

Fair use of a book’s content, a website, or even the news underpins a search engine’s ability to find and deliver websites to users of the internet. Sanford and Brown stake out a position for search engines that is similar to a public library. Just as a library can employ the contents of its archive to establish an index for its patrons, the search engine uses the contents of the internet to establish an index for anyone at all. Sanford and Brown, however, contend that search engines are not libraries, so fair use does not apply.

Sanford and Brown argue that two distinctions separate search engines from the library model. Search engines not only copy text, they reproduce it in their results as snippets. Rights of reproduction are protected for copyright holders. Second, search engines sell advertising, and the sale of advertising is contingent on their ability to copy, store and reproduce copyrighted material. These distinctions, argue Sanford and Brown, disqualify search engines from the safe harbor of any exemption made for libraries. Their remedy: legislation.

The problem is, search engines don’t find safe harbor in the library model, and legislation is not the answer. Yes, a library applies fair use in its practices, and search engines have been compared to them in the past, but not all applications of fair use are found in the confines a library. This may be why they are so quick to demand legislation to expand copyright, even though expanding copyright may drive more business to the lawyers who protect it than the websites involved.

The Ninth Circuit court framed a four factor test for fair use in the case of Perfect 10 v. Google, et al in May 2007. The test would distinguish between copyright infringement and fair use in the case of Google’s use of Perfect 10 material in its search results. The four factors comprise: the purpose and character of the use; the nature of the work, ie fact-based or creative; the amount of the work used; and the effect on the market for the work. None of them invoke the metaphor of the library used by Sanford and Brown.

When Google displayed the Perfect 10 images, the Circuit determined that all four factors weigh in its favor. The images may have been highly original, but the results incorporate “an original work into a new work, namely an electronic reference tool,” and this is highly transformative: “a search engine may be more transformative than a parody because a search engine provides an entirely new use for the original work, while a parody typically has the same entertainment purpose as the original work.” Though Google would use a degraded thumbnail version of the image, its “use of the entire photographic image [is] reasonable in light of the purpose of a search engine.” The Ninth Circuit, therefore, reasoned that Google’s use of Perfect 10 thumbnails would be considered fair use. Though it didn’t provide a decision, it did suffice to vacate Perfect 10’s preliminary injunction against Google.

Sanford and Brown mistake the metaphor of a library as the only example of fair use when alternatives, such as the Ninth Circuit’s opinion, are perfectly acceptable. Perhaps this is why, having fleshed out their metaphor, they seize on legislation as a solution. Indeed, they would have Congress assert, “once the cache is monetized for the benefit of a search engine, the line of copyright infringement is crossed.” Isn’t this a sort of Hail Mary pass to rights-holders?
Legislation could make it illegal to monetize a cache without permission, but it’s not the panacea that Sanford and Brown are driving at. If the legislation mandated payments for rights-holders, it would, but this is probably not a suggestion that would be found in the pages of the Wall Street Journal. More likely, it would not, and it would leave websites in the position of the prisoner’s dilemma. If everyone cooperates and insists on payment, it will be to their mutual advantage, but the search engines direct so much traffic that each website has an incentive to break ranks; hence, everyone reluctantly opts in for fear that they’ll be the lone hold-out. In effect, it’s as though the legislation never happened, with one important distinction: there’s a new law on the books that requires a few good lawyers to understand. Perhaps that’s what’s really driving Sanford and Brown’s comment.

There is an exception, however. Not all players are equal in this game. Some may wager that holding-out is viable regardless of legislation or whether others do. That’s exactly what News Corp has done. They have begun negotiating a possible payment from Microsoft for the exclusive right to index their content. Though derided by many on the internet, should they find an agreement, their example will prove an important experiment in the question of paying for content.