Aereo and the Future of Content and Copyright

A case being petitioned for review by the Supreme Court will, if accepted, tell us a lot about the future of broadcasting. More importantly, it will tell us a lot about the future of all the content media, and of the nation’s copyright laws generally.

The case in question concerns the business practices of an outfit called Aereo, which streams for a fee over-the-air TV programming to the company’s subscribers.  Because this programming is delivered through the Internet, it is accessible when and where the subscriber wants it.  Sounds good, right?

Bu there’s a hitch.  Unlike cable and satellite systems, which pay the broadcasters for the right to retransmit their copyrighted programming, Aereo pays nothing. And how are they able to do this?  Well, that’s the heart of the Supreme Court petition filed last month by the four big broadcast networks, ABC, CBS, NBC, and Fox.

When cable and satellite operators distribute broadcast programming to their subscribers this is deemed a “public performance,” which is why those operators have to pay the broadcast copyright holders for the privilege.  When, however, an individual records a copyrighted program on his DVD this is deemed a “private performance,” and requires no compensation to the copyright holder.

Aereo’s business plan plainly exploits this public/private dichotomy by the simple device of installing tens of thousands of dime-sized antennas, each of which stream the over-the-air programming to Aereo’s subscribers individually, thereby qualifying, according to Aereo, as a private performance.

Lest you think for a minute that this is a triumph of engineering, rest assured it is not.  As noted by Rod Smolla, the lawyer who filed a brief for The Media Institute in support of the petition for review: “If a picture tells a thousand words, a thousand antennas tell the picture.”

Nor is Smolla the only person who sees through this scheme.  Denny Chin, an appeals court judge who was part of a panel that earlier ruled against an injunction against Aereo, wrote this in his stinging dissent:

The [Aereo] system employs thousands of individual dime-sized antennas rather than one central antenna; indeed, the system is a Rube Goldberg-like contrivance, over-engineered in an attempt to avoid the reach of the Copyright Act and to take advantage of a perceived loophole in the law. 

Because the Supreme Court agrees to review less than one percent of the cases brought before it, it’s no sure thing that Aereo will be reviewed, even though Aereo has declined to oppose the petition for review.  Much may depend on the decision in another appeals court, which is considering a case concerning a company with an Aereo-like setup.  If that court rules against the company, there will be a conflict between two appeals courts (the Second and Ninth circuits), something that would increase the chances that the Supreme Court would agree to review the case.

The importance of this case is not just whether broadcasters can derive revenue for their programs from third-party Internet distributors.  The importance is in what it will tell us about the future of all the content industries and of copyright itself.

To put it another way, you don’t have to be a fan of broadcasting (or Hollywood, or the recording industry, etc.) to have a high regard for copyright.  Like the First Amendment, copyright is enshrined in the U.S. Constitution, and in practice it is copyright that provides the incentive that leads to the creation of the content that the First Amendment protects!

Seen this way (and even acknowledging that there is always some tension between the First Amendment and copyright, usually over arguments about the reach of “fair use”), both of these concepts are not just important in their own right, they’re the opposite sides of the same coin.

Today, however, those industries that rely on copyright protection – the so-called content media like newspapers, magazines, motion pictures, recording companies, book publishers, and broadcasting – are being decimated by piracy and/or the copyright-skirting practices of Internet companies like Google.

Whether the Supreme Court reviews the case or not, Aereo won’t be the last word on the subject of copyright protection.  But if Aereo, or any company, can escape paying copyright fees simply by creating a service that turns on a technological sham like Aereo’s, it’s not just content producers that will suffer; it’s the content-consuming public and copyright law generally.


The opinions expressed above are those of the writer and not of The Media Institute, its Board, contributors, or advisory councils. A version of this article appeared in the online edition of USA Today on Dec.16, 2013.


The Truth Behind Google’s Copyright-Bills Hysteria

Though the final chapter in the legislative history of the copyright bills hasn’t yet been written, a couple things are obvious even now: The tech industry has demonstrated great political clout through the mobilization of its users and fan base; and the industry lobby, led by Google, will say and do pretty much anything to advance its commercial interests.

This provides the background for what happened within just a few days last week, as Congress was flooded with calls and mail, and petitions were signed by millions, in opposition to bills whose intent was to provide an effective way to combat content infringement on rogue websites abroad.

Didn’t matter that most fans of social media, file-sharing, blogs, and the like know next to nothing about communications policymaking, or even the details of the laws they were moved to oppose.  They know what they like, and dislike, and when manipulated into seeing the copyright bills as a threat they responded in great numbers.

None of which, of course, is to wonder why people feel more of a kinship with things like the social media than they do with the mainstream media.  The one-way and “one-to-the-many” aspects of the old media don’t empower people, or allow for their personal expression, in the manner of blogs or social media like Facebook and YouTube.

But the reason so many people were disposed to dislike the copyright bills, and their knowledge of what was actually in them, are two different things.  What moved them to act on their dislike was yet another.  For these parts of the story we have to look to the tech industry lobby, and Google most importantly.  It was Google that floated the canard that passage of the bills would forever change “the Internet as we’ve known it.”

The irony in Google’s claim was apparently lost on most of the media, tech and mainstream, which may explain why so few reporters pointed out that this alleged threat is word-for-word what the company said, 13 years ago, in opposition to another copyright bill (the Digital Millennium Copyright Act), passage of which has since proven to be a positive boon to Internet companies.

It may also explain why so few reporters pointed out that Google’s claims about the copyright bills – as precursors to the regulation of the Internet – are not just over the top but hypocritical.  It was, after all, Google that successfully lobbied, with the active help of a majority of FCC Commissioners, for so-called “network neutrality” regulations, the precedent of which provides not for just speculative but “here and now” regulation of the Internet.

Still, if crass exaggeration and hypocrisy were all that Google displayed in this regard, one might be inclined just to dismiss it as boys being boys.  But it didn’t stop there.  Google, and other groups that should know better, also gave expression and currency to the bunkum that the copyright bills amounted to an assault on the First Amendment.

That this argument was utterly demolished by the country’s leading First Amendment expert, Floyd Abrams, didn’t give them a moment’s pause, with the upshot being that this nonsense was parroted by all sorts of people as a reason for rejection of the bills.

In August of last year, The Media Institute filed a white paper with the Federal Trade Commission titled “Google and the Media: How Google is Leveraging its Position in Search to Dominate the Media Economy.”  Among other things, the paper demonstrated the ways in which Google profits from copyright infringement; that indeed the use of other people’s content without their permission has been at the heart of the company’s business plan.

Though the paper didn’t recommend any particular remedy, it asked the FTC to intervene in a way that would prevent the media economy from being dominated by a single entity.  Google’s conduct regarding the copyright legislation shows that, far from pulling back, its interest in this kind of domination is growing apace.


The opinions expressed above are those of the writer and not of The Media Institute, its Board, contributors, or advisory councils.  This piece was first published in the Dallas Morning News on Jan. 25, 2012.


Orts and All

Regulating the ’Net.  Much has been alleged in recent days about the risks to the independence of the Internet were the copyright bills currently before Congress to become law.  As mentioned here and here, the most extravagant of these allegations are flummery of the first water, but copyright issues aside, the ’net is indeed on the cusp of a significant transformation.

Evidence of this can be seen in the actions of the FCC, whether on its own initiative or by its implementation of regulations after passage of legislation into law.  The Commission’s codification of  "net neutrality" rules was the first example of the Internet’s capture.  The action currently underway by the FCC to promulgate regulations re the 21st Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act, a law which, among other things, mandates captioning for online video, is another.

Goes without saying that making online video accessible to the deaf is a nice thing to do, and for many that’s the end of the story.  But people who are familiar with the way laws and regulatory policies evolve know that things like these have a precedential impact in Congress, the courts, and the regulatory agencies, and that very often these precedents are then offered up in justification of other laws or rules that are not so nice.

In any case, the point here is that it’s already too late in the day for people who have an idealistic interest in the Internet to fret the future loss of its independence.  Thanks to the majority at the FCC and/or in Congress, the Internet’s pristine independence has already been lost.

Media Matters.  The organization called Media Matters for America, which exists to demean and (where possible) destroy conservative journalists and organizations like FOX News, has now come out with a contrived accusation against George Will.

The gravamen of MMA’s contrivance is that, as a Board member of a conservative grant-giving group (the Bradley Foundation), Will should be required to mention this connection whenever he writes about or cites the work of any of the groups to which Bradley contributes!

Given that Bradley funds a very large number of conservative think tanks and other enterprises, this would mean, as a practical matter, that Will would have to include this disclosure pretty much all the time since he is, after all, a conservative himself and cites these organizations’ work frequently.

As the Washington Post’s executive editor put it, in reply to a request from MMA for comment: “Is it seriously a surprise to you that George Will quotes experts from conservative think tanks more often than he quotes experts from liberal think tanks?”

What a relief! The latest news is that Keith Olbermann, who is faithfully viewed nightly by at least 16 people, may be staying on at Current TV, a network that captures the imagination of dozens.  

It’s been a close call for the past few days, but as this is being written word is out that Olbermann and management of Current, who have been at loggerheads over something or other, have resolved their differences.  So a country that has been paralyzed with fear that things might not work out can breathe again. What a happy day.


The opinions expressed above are those of the writer and not of The Media Institute, its Board, contributors, or advisory councils.

Rationalizing Theft: A Postscript

The fight over the copyright bills currently being considered in Congress puts on display two of the tech industry’s least attractive characteristics – its sense of entitlement, and its extraordinary lack of knowledge about things outside the area of its core competency.

So it is that the bills in question (the Protect IP and Stop Online Piracy acts) are said by the tech industry’s lobbyists and fan base to threaten the “end of the Internet as we’ve known it,” the same claim they made 13 years ago in opposition to the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.  (And we all know how that worked out.)

As mentioned in an earlier post, all of the techies profess to have an interest in preventing copyright infringement; it just happens that they oppose anything and everything that’s ever been (or will be) proposed for the purpose.

The earlier blog scored the hyperbolic, not to say hypocritical, aspects of the criticism being leveled at today’s copyright bills.  But after reading additional criticism of them published since, it’s clear that I overlooked something.

Though most critics don’t come right out and say so, much of the criticism of the bills springs from people who, convinced that industries like Hollywood and the traditional media are of less importance than the Internet, believe that for this reason copyright laws ought to favor the latter over the former.  As one techno-philosopher, commenting on a piece in TechCrunch put it: “The Internet is the new entertainment industry.”

One needn’t dispute the current and future importance of the Internet (and all things digital) to know that this is an inapposite and corrosive argument, for the simple reason that copyright protection was never designed to be meted out in proportion to the financial dimensions of a company or industry.  It’s a constitutional law that is meant to protect all copyright holders, whatever their commercial girth or market caps.

To put it another way, the Constitution does not have to accommodate industries; industries have to accommodate the Constitution. This is, after all, one of the reasons we call our own a nation of laws.

Because The Media Institute is not a lobby, we’re not in a position to know whether the House or Senate bills will pass either body.  We read that some softening of them may be in the cards, though the recent forceful testimony in support of the bills, as written, by Register of Copyrights Maria Pallante would seem to suggest otherwise.

Whatever the outcome, one thing has been made clear by the tech industry’s shrill opposition.  If U.S. copyright laws – and those people and industries that rely on them – are to survive, there will have to be a far more sophisticated and generous understanding of the value in copyrights generally.  As Ms. Pallante chillingly put it in her remarks to the House Judiciary Committee: “It is my view that if Congress does not continue to provide serious responses to online piracy, the U.S. copyright system will ultimately fail.”


The opinions expressed above are those of the writer and not of The Media Institute, its Board, contributors, or advisory councils.

Rationalizing Theft: The Technology Lobby’s Attack on Copyright Legislation

The technology crowd’s objections to the copyright protection bills, now moving their way through Congress, put one in mind of H.L. Mencken’s crack that criticism is prejudice made plausible.  This, because that industry’s leaders, scribes, and think tanks uniformly oppose every legislative initiative aimed at protecting copyrighted content, even as they frequently give lip service to the concept .

From the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) in the late ’90s – which they fought tooth and nail, but cling to in today’s debates as though it were an uncle come to jail with money for the bail bondsman – to today’s Protect IP and Stop Online Piracy acts (good summaries of which are here and here), the techies profess all sorts of high-minded concerns, but never at the expense, you understand, of their business plans.

Take, for instance, Google, the 800-pound gorilla, inside and outside the Beltway, regarding all things digital.  The company’s executive chairman, Eric Schmidt, claims that attempts to crack down on rogue sites profiting from copyright infringement could set a “disastrous precedent” for freedom of speech, and also that they would encourage more restrictive Internet policies in countries like China.

This is serious stuff, and would be more serious still if (a) it were true, and (b) it issued from a company with any public policy credibility in this regard.  Alas, neither is the case.  Let’s start with the credibility problem first.

The best example of a U.S. policy that really would have (or might still) set a bad precedent regarding repressive regimes abroad is the FCC’s recently concluded Network Neutrality proceeding.  Indeed, in March of last year the U.S. Coordinator for International Communications & Information Policy at the State Department, Philip Verveer, had this to say about the subject at a Media Institute luncheon in Washington: “The net neutrality proceeding is one that could be employed by regimes that don’t agree with our perspectives of essentially avoiding regulation of the Internet … it could be employed as a pretext or as an excuse for undertaking public policy activity that we would disagree with pretty profoundly.”

Though there are those, of whom I’m one, who think the FCC’s subsequently enacted Internet rules, though greatly watered down, still went too far, the more interesting thing to note in this regard is that Google was the leading figure among those lobbying in support of net neutrality.

In the summer of 2006, for instance, Eric Schmidt himself penned a note on Google’s Public Policy Blog that read in part:

The Internet as we know it is facing a serious threat.  There’s a debate heating up in Washington, D.C. on something called “net neutrality” – and it’s a debate that’s so important Google is asking you to get involved.  We’re asking you to take action to protect Internet freedom….

Creativity, innovation, and a free and open marketplace are all at stake in this fight. Please call your representative and let your voice be heard.  

And then there’s the argument, made by Google and lesser apologists of unfettered infringement, that the Protect IP and Stop Online Piracy acts undermine the speech guarantees of the First Amendment.  Whether it’s because they like the sound of the accusation, or because, not knowing any better, they actually believe it, there’s a lot of this nonsense going around the technocracy.

They might be more cautious about making such claims if they read the First Amendment analysis of the Protect IP Act written by the most distinguished First Amendment scholar of our age, Floyd Abrams.  In a 12-page letter sent on May 24 to Senate Judiciary Committee members Leahy, Hatch, and Grassley, Abrams lays out a compelling argument that the Act is consistent with the First Amendment, and concludes with these observations:

Among a range of objections, two core critiques stand out.  First, there is a recurring argument that the United States would be less credible in its criticisms of nations that egregiously violate the civil liberties of their citizens if Congress cracks down on rogue websites.  Second, there is the vaguer notion that stealing is somehow less offensive when carried out online….

I disagree.  Copyright violations are not protected by the First Amendment.  Entities “dedicated to infringing activities” are not engaging in speech that any civilized, let alone freedom-oriented nation protects.  That these infringing activities occur on the Internet makes them not less, but more harmful.  The notion that by combating such acts through legislation, the United States would compromise its role as the world leader in advancing a free and universal Internet seems to me insupportable.  As a matter of both constitutional law and public policy, the United States must remain committed to defending both the right to speak and the ability to protect one’s intellectual creations.  This legislation does not impair or overcome the constitutional right to engage in speech; it protects creators of speech, as Congress has since this Nation was founded, by combating its theft.

Abrams’ last point is especially noteworthy.  Not only is the current concern with copyright protection  nothing new, it is in fact as old as the country itself.  Reading the overwrought diatribes of the tech community one might get a different impression, but in fact it’s all there in black and white, among the “enumerated powers” in Article 1, Section 8 of the U.S. Constitution.

For those who have forgotten, or never knew, this so-called copyright clause empowers Congress “To promote the Progress of Science and the useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive right to their respective Writings and Discoveries.”

Language and wisdom, that is to say, that is not the contemporary creation of the heads of the motion picture studios, but of the Founding Fathers more than 200 years ago.


The opinions expressed above are those of the writer and not of The Media Institute, its Board, contributors, or advisory councils.

More on Newspapers and Aggregators

If newspapers ultimately survive, they might owe a debt of gratitude not only to Rupert Murdoch (as Patrick Maines suggested here recently), but also to two brothers who have combined their expertise in economics and the law to analyze the problem and come up with a potential solution.

As I wrote here earlier this month, online aggregators quite possibly could kill off newspapers by pirating the papers’ original news content.   Among the industry watchers who have studied this phenomenon are Daniel Marburger, Ph.D., a professor of economics at Arkansas State University, and his brother David Marburger, Esq., a partner at the Baker Hostetler law firm in Cleveland.   

The brothers have conducted an extensive analysis of both the economic and legal frameworks of the newspaper industry (print and online), and how these frameworks intertwine in the digital age.  In a number of papers and articles, the Marburgers have gone beyond the usual observations in two important ways: (1) They draw a distinction between “pure aggregators” and “parasitic aggregators”; and (2) they suggest a way of closing a loophole in copyright law that would seriously curtail the so-called parasites.

“Pure aggregators,” they say, use only a headline and maybe a sentence from the original news source, and then link back to that source (i.e., a newspaper website).  Pure aggregators are economically good for papers on balance because they drive readers to the newspapers’ websites.

“Parasitic aggregators,” on the other hand, take content from newspaper sites, rewrite it a bit, and then pass it off on their own sites.  These parasitic aggregators are bad because they retain readers rather than drive them to the newspapers’ sites.

In the Marburgers’ longest paper on the economic viability of newspapers, two section titles sum up the problem and its effect: “The federal copyright act allows parasitic aggregators to ‘free-ride’ on others’ substantial journalistic investments”; and “If the law does not change, newspapers continually will diminish their journalistic resources until they can subsist only by underproducing news or until they go out of business.”

The Marburgers’ solution would allow newspapers to seek redress for unfair competition under state statutory or common-law remedies for unjust enrichment – remedies that federal copyright law has in effect precluded since 1976.  They’re not suggesting a new law – just an amendment to Section 301 of the Copyright Act.

In this short space I am oversimplifying the Marburgers’ excellent analysis and recommendations – but I hope I can help draw attention to a thoughtful paper that is worthy of serious consideration and widespread recognition.   

New Tech and the Old Media

Microsoft’s Chief Counsel for Intellectual Property Strategy, Tom Rubin, recently gave a speech to the UK Association of Online Publishers that has made some waves.

At its most basic, Rubin’s speech was a call for greater copyright protection of “quality content,” and an appeal to content providers for new approaches to the dissemination of their content online.

“The evidence is in,” he says, “and I think we can safely say that the ‘information wants to be free’ approach not only does not work, actually it has been a disaster for almost all newspapers.”

Even if, as a columnist for CNET suggested, Rubin’s speech was meant to position Microsoft, at Google’s expense, as the “safe” technology partner for content companies, many of the specific observations, and the very language employed, provide a welcome contrast to the carelessness and condescension that mark so much of the digerati’s take on the subject.

Speaking of the Evil One, turns out that Google and Yahoo! called off their joint advertising deal just in the nick of time.

A story in the December 2 issue of Am Law Daily quotes Sanford Litvack as saying that the Department of Justice was just three hours away from filing antitrust charges to block the deal when the two companies abandoned their pact.

Litvack says that had the deal not been withdrawn the DOJ would have challenged it under sections of the Sherman Act that “ban agreements that restrain trade unreasonably,” and “make it unlawful for a company to monopolize or attempt to monopolize trade.”

As noted here in September, because of its opacity and potential harm to online publishers and advertisers, the deal alarmed many people, including us. Glad to see it go away, unwept.

Digital Copyright Questions Deserve Answers

The U.S. Supreme Court has an opportunity to chart a clearer course for copyright protection in the digital age if it agrees to hear a case from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit.  The matter involves a video-on-demand service offered by Cablevision Systems, and allegations by Cable News Network that the service constitutes the unlawful copying and public performance of copyrighted works.

The case raises at least two serious and unresolved issues.  First, who is responsible for making a copy of protected content?   The cable customer who makes a selection from the cable company’s video-on-demand service?  Or the cable company itself, for putting in place and making available the automated software that allows the customer to make that selection?  

Second, what constitutes a public performance?  Is a video-on-demand program viewed in the privacy of one’s family room a public performance?

Such issues are important because they go beyond the narrow scope of video-on-demand and touch on broader questions of how digital technology will be used to produce, store, transmit, and copy content across a variety of platforms – and how that content is to be protected in this digital environment.  Once again technology has far outpaced law and regulation, and is striding ahead in territories still largely uncharted.

How the courts map that territory will depend on how much value they place on protecting the creative rights of copyright holders.  Meanwhile, the digital age in general and the Internet in particular have generated a new class of content users (including many college professors) who believe that anything goes when it comes to obtaining and sharing copyrighted material.  (Remember Napster?)

In the Cablevision matter, however, professors of a different stripe have filed an amicus brief urging the Supreme Court to take the case.  Led by copyright guru Prof. Raymond Nimmer, this group of six law professors and one economics professor (all with impeccable intellectual property credentials) argue that creative rights are worth protecting and that the law should come down on the side of copyright owners.  (Two of the group, Dean Rodney A. Smolla of the Washington & Lee University School of Law and Prof. Stan Liebowitz of the University of Texas at Dallas, sit on the advisory council of the National CyberEducation Project, a program of The Media Institute.)

I agree with these professors, that the Supreme Court needs to take this case for the sake of digital information systems going forward.  I further agree that copyrights are essential – and that copyright protection needs to be clarified in this digital age.   

Of Men and Machines

You know that idealism has taken an odd turn when it’s associated more with the function and marketing of machines than with the creative work of human beings.  That is, or should be, the take-away from the latest copyright flap — MPAA’s petition to the FCC for a limited waiver of that agency’s so-called SOC rules.

For those of you who don’t follow such things, the point of the petition is the film studios’ desire to market Video on Demand, high definition movies earlier than DVDs, and closer to their release date in theaters.  This would be done through deals the studios would make with video programming distributors like satellite TV, cable TV, and telecom companies like AT&T and Verizon.

Problem is that the program distributors are not allowed, without a waiver for the purpose, to market such films in the way (with SOC-enabled content) that would prohibit illegal copying and distribution, something the studios have reason to fear greatly.

In the grand tradition of all such, the petition has attracted not just the attention of the primary players — the studios and program distributors on one side, and the video equipment manufacturers on the other — but also the usual coterie of self-professed public- and consumer-interest organizations.

Seven such, led by the Washington group Public Knowledge, filed comments last week in opposition to the waiver, and their arguments speak volumes not only about their mindset toward such matters, but in a way that parallels the lack of regard for copyright in the larger universe of academia, much of the technology press, and among the digerati generally.

By all appearances, the biggest issue Public Knowledge et al. have with the waiver petition is an alleged frustration of “consumer expectations” that would ensue when owners of “legacy devices” (older high-def TVs that, unlike all of the more recent models, do not come equipped to recognize SOC data) find that they cannot order the movies at the earlier release date.

Though not guaranteed, both the logic and the language of the MPAA petition strongly suggest, however, that these same movies would still be available for purchase, VoD, at the later date that obtains today.  And in any case, they would also be available through premium subscription services, like HBO and Showtime, during the usual release window, about 9-12 months after their theatrical debut, and as DVDs in half that time.

Public Knowledge and company strain to characterize this matter in compelling language: “Users who purchase expensive multi-component HD-capable entertainment systems,” they say, “are likely to consider them generally future proof…. Even if early-release films do not appear on the list of VoD offerings for these users, customers will be left wondering why neighbors and friends — those who subscribe to the same MVPD service at the same price, and have near-identical setups using different cables — are not offered the same movies.”

The national interest in envy-free neighborhoods notwithstanding, the fear that someone will be disadvantaged because he has a digital device that, being older, can’t do things that newer ones can, seems like kind of a wobbly rock on which to build the church of the public interest.  This, because the clearest thing in the world about the Digital Age is that not only is nothing forever, nothing is even for very long.  And this is true of all things digital, from computers, to cameras, to PDAs, to satellite radios, and yes, even to TV sets — all of which, in any case, are just machines!

The aspect of this, and related issues, that ought to be capturing the attention of public interest advocates, and “idealists” generally, is the human role.  In the making of films, for instance, it is human beings, not machines, who write the scripts, act the roles, design the sets, and direct the enterprise.   And it is these people, and their creative work, that should be at the forefront of our concern.

The issues raised by this particular MPAA petition aside, there is something these days that adds great poignancy, from an American perspective, to all things copyright related.  The United States faces international challenges that may be as daunting as those occasioned by the Cold War.  Specifically, we face the reality of global competition from countries both free and totalitarian, and with access to vital commodities, that is unlike anything we have ever known.

From behemoths like China, whose economy is projected to be bigger than ours in the foreseeable future, to countries like those in the Arab states, which are rich in oil, the USA is being challenged to find something it can do better than anyone else.  Because of our many freedoms, not the least of them freedom of speech and of the press, that thing is now intellectual property.  But it will need to be protected if it is to sustain us as a nation.

The Problem With Google

For a company whose corporate motto is “Don’t be evil,” Google has an unfortunate capacity to look past the most obvious things.

Take, for instance, its stance in favor of “net neutrality.” Insofar as this concept is more than a slogan it’s a bad idea, and especially so as a matter of policy.  Legislation like the Internet Freedom Preservation Act, for example, invites real government regulation of the Internet as a solution to an imaginary problem.

As seen in the title of the congressional legislation, the language of net neutrality proponents, always over the top, has lately taken on a kind of goofy grandeur, with some — like Save the Internet, a coalition coordinated by Free Press — trafficking in such pap as “Net neutrality, the First Amendment of the Internet.”  (Of course it is.)

But what’s the attraction in all of this for Google?

The critics’ answer is that Google wants to ensure, whatever the cost to the future development and independence of the Internet, its own dominant, and free riding, position.

Google’s approach to the problem of copyright infringement also calls into question the company’s high-mindedness.

As charged in the case of Viacom v. YouTube,  Google is accused of flagrant violation of copyrighted material on the website of its YouTube subsidiary.  Google’s defense is that it takes down offending posts after being notified, and that this is sufficient under the safe-harbor provisions of the DMCA.

But in its complaint Viacom makes a compelling case that the takedown process is an endless loop of notifications and re-postings, and that, in fact, copyright infringement is at the heart of YouTube’s business plan.

A number of observers have suggested that Viacom’s lawsuit is just an attempt to win a favorable licensing agreement, and that in the end the parties will work out some satisfactory arrangement between themselves.

Perhaps, but copyright infringement is not a crime against humanity, it’s a crime against copyright holders, and if a negotiated settlement is the result, so be it.  This said, much might be usefully clarified if the dispute goes all the way through trial.

In any case, the point is that, as with net neutrality, Google’s posture regarding copyright infringement seems to be driven more by its own interests than by any sense of a community of interests.

By the standards of those of us at The Media Institute, which is primarily a First Amendment organization, Google’s lack of any meaningful concern or action regarding freedom of speech and of the press is the most troubling aspect of the company.

We would not have this concern if Google were just a small affair, or if the legacy media were fat and sassy.  But neither is the case.  Google is a giant while newspapers, for instance, are in a fight for their very survival.

Just to establish a frame of reference, as this post is being written (midday, July 10), here are the market capitalizations of some leading media companies: Time Warner, $50B; Disney, $56B; Washington Post, $6B; Gannett, $4B; New York Times, $2B; and McClatchy, $427M. And Google’s market cap?  It is just in excess of $172B!

In other words, the market values Google more than it values Time Warner, Disney, Washington Post, New York Times, Gannett, and McClatchy put together!  In fact a lot more — 45 per cent more.

And the rub in this is that, as an historical matter, the most important players in promoting and defending the First Amendment have been Hollywood and newspapers.  Yet these are two industries much beleaguered by the Internet, of which Google is the leader.

Against this background one might expect a company determined not to be evil to mount a major effort, if not in assistance to the old media, then in lending a hand in promotion of the First Amendment. Sorry to say, Google’s record in this regard is a blank slate.

It’s in the nature of the way the world works that one can “be evil” in more than one way.  One can do it by acts of commission, and one can do it by acts of omission.  Judging by the examples above, Google does it both ways.