Wednesday, 15 July 2009

Google pwns newspaper publishers

So last week (9 July 2009) a bunch of European news publishers got together (the European Publishers Council) and presented the portentous sounding “Hamburg Declaration on Intellectual Property Rights” to European Commissioner Viviane Reding.

Cue mucho press coverage, but I just didn’t get it. The “declaration”, which was short and vague to the point of “”Ehhh?”, didn’t seem to me to do anything except re-trumpet generalities:

“we advocate strongly urgent improvements in the protection of intellectual property on the Internet…

Universal access to our services should be available, but going forward we no longer wish to be forced to give away property without having granted permission…

Legislators and governments at the national and international level should protect more effectively the intellectual creation of value by authors, publishers and broadcasters. Unauthorized use of intellectual property must remain prohibited whatever the means of distribution.”

Nothing practical or concrete was suggested in the “declaration” as to how they wanted this noble end achieved. The press release did mention “a new tool to enable any content provider to communicate their copyright terms and conditions online in a machine-readable way via ACAP (Automated Content Access Protocol).”

But my immediate reaction was, so they don’t want people to be sent to their sites and view their juicy money-earning ads through search engine referrals, then?

Now, search giant Google has rejoindered with the quite sensible point that if news sites don’t want their web pages to be crawled by the search engines, all they have to do is add two short lines to their robots.txt files on their servers (as one commenter pointed out, those lines should preferably read as follows, not as Google have set out in their blog posts - personally, I think it was just a typo on publishing):

User-agent: *
Disallow: /

Then, tada, no more indexing of the site by creepy crawly search engine bots. When there’s a perfectly good robots exclusion protocol in existence, why try to make people use another one?

I do agree that copying entire articles from a news site that hasn’t given permission for it would be a no no - but what’s wrong with showing snippets in search results (which, yes, means the whole site needs to be spidered in order to be able to extract the snippets)? They would tempt more people to visit those sites, not fewer, surely?

I do want quality news services to survive, I do, and I know it’s tougher in these times. I just don’t know what the solution could be. But I think Google have the right of it here.

Edited: sorry, for non-computery lawyers, see "pwn".

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