Google Case Puts Focus on Web Thumbnail Photos

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A federal judge rules that Google violated the copyright of an online porn site by posting thumbnails of the site's photos. The ruling could have significant implications for Google and other search engines that reuse photos without approval from rights-holders.

ALEX CHADWICK, host:

This is DAY TO DAY, I'm Alex Chadwick.

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

And I'm Madeleine Brand. Internet search giant Google recently lost a legal battle over copyright protections. A federal judge has ruled that Google violated copyright law by offering thumbnail images of nude models from an adult website. The case has broad implications it could restrict photos and other information search engines are allowed to offer online. Here with more is DAY TO DAY tech contributor Xeni Jardin.

Ms. XENI JARDIN reporting:

Perfect Ten sells photos of nude models through a print magazine, a website and a mobile phone image download service. In 2004 the company filed suit against Google claiming the search engine allowed people to get free thumbnails of photos that Perfect Ten was selling. On Friday Federal Judge Howard Matz agreed to grant Perfect Ten's demands that Google stop displaying its copyrighted images. The small company also sued another Internet giant, Amazon.com in 2005 over similar claims. That case will be decided separately. Perfect Ten's General Counsel is Daniel Cooper. He says Google got small indexed copies of their images from third party websites around the world that stole the pictures off Perfect Ten.com.

Mr. DANIEL COOOPER (General Counsel, Perfect Ten): These are websites that are often times in Russia, they're in Kazakhstan, the Ukraine, where ever. They exist one day, they may not exist the next day. They often operate under different domains, their registrations are often phony with false information, so they're very hard to track down. So the only thing they have going for them is their thievery, and Google basically leads people to these websites via their image search.

JARDIN: This isn't the first time Google has been sued over its image search tool. Agents France Press has a pending suit against Google over claims that indexing of its photos and headlines hurt the news agency's business. Still, some believe the Perfect Ten case could have far-reaching impact beyond Google and beyond porn.

Professor SIVA VAIDYANATHAN (New York University): This case basically could drive a nail right through the heart of searching.

JARDIN: Siva Vaidyanathan is an Assistant Professor of Culture and Communication at New York University. He believes limiting the ability of search engines like Google to index publicly available information, no matter how it became public, threatens the open nature of the internet.

Professor VAIDYANATHAN: The web would be instantly balkanized and ranked by commercial power and it wouldn't be this free and open space that we really value. It's the reason the web works for us in ways that the shopping mall doesn't. The web gives everybody a fair shot of getting noticed, and that's really only because of search engines.

JARDIN: And the legal battle over how much Google activity is related to porn has given Perfect Ten and the federal government common cause. Perfect Ten's lawyers want the same kind of porn search data that the Department of Justice is suing Google for. While the Justice Department wants information to support an anti-porn law, Perfect Ten wants data to prove that Google profits from sites that steal photos from Perfect Ten by selling ads to those thieving companies.

Mr. COOPER: How much money is Google paying these (unintelligible) websites? Because often times these are free websites, these aren't subscription websites like Perfect Ten. Their entire source of revenue is Google essentially. Then if Google were to pull the plug, then absolutely they would have the ability to control the infringing activity.

JARDIN: Google wouldn't speak on tape about this matter but their attorney Michael Kwun said in a prepared statement, We anticipate that any preliminary injunction will have no affect on the vast majority of image searches and will affect only searches related to Perfect Ten.

Friday's court decision was preliminary and the case may be appealed to the Ninth Circuit, and unless that appeals court dismisses the case, it will likely go to trial.

For NPR News in Los Angeles I'm Xeni Jardin.

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