(As always: I’m not a lawyer, I’m definitely not your lawyer, and nothing herein is to be taken as legal advice.)
In light of the revelations that Microsoft has been copying Google’s search results and feeding them into its Bing results, there’s a discussion about whether and how Google might seek a legal remedy. While “sue for copyright infringement” is perhaps a good default answer in internet law, I don’t think it’s the right one here. There may be other good options, though; I discuss one further below.
Senior Google Counsel William Patry knows a lot more about copyright than I ever will, but I’d be shocked if his team went into court with the claim that their search results are copyrightable. Copyright is only granted to creative expressions fixed in a tangible medium. Databases (compilations of data, including the association between various bits of data) are not subject to copyright unless there’s some creative expression involved, and then, only the creative expression is protected.
I think the clearest case law analogy here is Feist v. Rural, in which the defendant acknowledged having copied the plaintiff’s white pages. Still, the SCOTUS found unanimously for the defense. Why? Because there’s no creativity in collecting the data and alphabetizing the list of names. This is true even though several of the names were fake—and appeared in both the original and the copied version. Sound familiar?
The technology is different, but the legal question is remarkably similar. Google doesn’t create the websites to which it links, and it is exceptionally clear that the sorting that happens in the black box is fully automated and governed by complex equations. In other words, it’s like a much more complicated version of alphabetizing.
Imagine similar copying based on a sorting mechanism that is more complicated than alphabetical order but less complicated than Google search rankings—say, NFL quarterbacks’ passer ratings. If I were a sports blogger, I would have no compunction about copying the list of starters ranked by passer rating from the NFL.com site. Why? It’s just a list of which quarterbacks had which ratings, sorted by a somewhat complicated but ultimately mathematical rating. The NFL could sue me, but it would be pointless.
We don’t know how the math behind the search results and rankings work, but we do know that it’s an automatic process. Anybody who knows the formula could apply it and get the same results. This means the results aren’t sufficiently creative to be copyrightable. Even though Google’s search software is much more complicated, it’s probably best described as the legal equivalent of alphabetizing or ranking quarterbacks by formulaic passer ratings. I’m perhaps overstating the case, but on a scale from “Shakespeare” to “phone book,” search engine results are practically tripping on the white pages.
One might object, “But software is copyrightable!” Yes, software written by creative human programmers is copyrightable. This includes the code inside Google’s black box. But Bing didn’t copy the code. That would be infringement, not to mention a violation of trade secrets. Bing just copied the results–and not even whole hog, but as input for their own formula–and the results are not themselves a creative expression.
So where does that leave Google’s legal strategy? I know much less about this area of law, but I think they could go for the other default answer for internet law: “Sue for violating the clickwrap license.”
The fit here is also not bad. Google’s Terms of Service forbid certain uses, including accessing any services “through any automated means (including use of scripts or web crawlers).” Even though the IE users themselves are not automatons, IE is, and apparently it’s serving as a web crawler, harvesting the data and sending it back to Redmond.
Funny coincidence that I’d pick this case, too. Read the slip opinion here (pdf), and check out the participating attorneys. Guess who was the lead attorney for Register.com, the victorious plaintiff… William Patry. Maybe I’m not so far off base here in predicting a Register v. Verio-based strategy.
Google may well let Bing’s actions speak for themselves and avoid the legal route altogether. That’s a fine PR strategy, and suing also may not be worth the political cost of giving fodder to Google’s opponents on other issues down the road. But if they want to sue, I think copyright is a terrible route, while breach of contract may be a good route.
There are still other legal options, to be sure. But as “Chainsaw” Dan Snyder reminds us, suing isn’t always the best option.