Ethics group urges Google examination


SAN FRANCISCO -- An ethics group is urging Congress to scrutinize Google Inc.'s copyright controls after finding hundreds of apparently pirated movies available on the Internet search leader's Web site.

In letters sent to several lawmakers Wednesday, the National Legal and Policy Center excoriated Google for allowing its video-hosting service to become an online theater for showing and promoting illegally copied movies.

The nonprofit group, which says it has no financial ties to the movie industry, is best known for helping to expose a 2003 corruption scandal involving the Air Force and Boeing Co. that landed two executives in jail.

The grievances made to Congress focused exclusively on content found on Google's Web site rather than the company's more popular YouTube subsidiary that is being sued by Viacom Inc. for alleged copyright infringement.

The harsh critique echoes similar complaints that have asserted Google is more interested in boosting its audience -- and potential profit -- than protecting the intellectual property of Hollywood studios, record labels, authors and publishers.

Google says it adheres to federal law by removing unauthorized content whenever asked by copyright owners.

But that method has proven to be woefully inadequate, said Ken Boehm, chairman of the nonprofit National Legal and Policy Center.

"They clearly have the technological and economic wherewithal to do something more about it," Boehm said. "Instead, they are making money off other people's intellectual property. That's wrong."

Google probably remains on solid legal ground, said Bruce Sunstein, a Boston lawyer specializing in intellectual property rights. "The law will favor Google as long as they are diligent in taking down videos, but they could be in trouble if they have a cavalier attitude."

In a statement, Google said it is working on new technology that will be introduced in the "not-too-distant" future to help copyright owners block unauthorized material from being posted on the site. Earlier in the year, the Mountain View-based company indicated the filtering tools would be introduced as early as September.

Other sites, including News Corp.'s and Microsoft's, already have copyright filters set up.

"As a company that respects the rights of copyright holders, we work every day to help them manage their content, and we are developing state-of-the-art tools to let them do that even better," Google spokesman Gabriel Stricker said.

The National Legal and Policy Group found plenty of room for improvement after poring through Google's video site from Sept. 10 through Sept. 18.

That review uncovered 300 apparently pirated movies that that had been viewed a combined 22 million times. About 60 of the movies were recent theatrical releases, including popular films like "Shrek The Third," "Oceans Thirteen" and "The Bourne Ultimatum" that aren't even available on DVD yet.

In some instances, the movie titles were misspelled in an apparent attempt to skirt detection. Some of the copyright violations were egregious, Boehm said, because it was obvious the movies had been taped in a theater with a video camera. Some of the movies also included Web links to sites specializing in pirated video, Boehm said.

To help hunt for apparent copyright violations, Boehm said he hired his 18-year-old nephew for $10 per hour. He suggested Google might be able to afford to hire more copyright cops, given the company earned nearly $2 billion on $7.5 billion in revenue during the first half of the year.

Boehm thinks Google's ineffectual policing efforts raise serious questions about the company's motto, "Don't Be Evil."

"We are hoping to shame Google into doing something," Boehm said. "What they are doing is inexcusable corporate behavior. When big companies do something unethical, it sends a message to everyone else that it's OK."