With the Web industry watching closely as it tries to navigate the treacherous waters of online copyright law, Google is facing a lawsuit from a French company that says the search engine did more than just help users find an online copy of its film.
Paris-based Flach Film is alleging copyright violations, saying Google helped distribute “The World According to Bush” by making it available on the Google Video France Web site. The film is a documentary that criticizes the U.S. president’s policies and actions since taking office in 2000.
The company said some 43,000 users accessed the film during the short time it was available on the French site. In a suit filed in Paris Commercial Court, Flach is seeking unspecified royalties and lost revenue in connection with the free downloads
Though limited in jurisdiction to France, the lawsuit may be key because it portrays Google as much more than a search engine, a role that gives Google some legal protections. For instance, Google is not held responsible if its search results include links to pirated content — unless the search engine is made aware of the infringement.
Flach, however, says Google went beyond its search-and-find role to become a publisher or distributor of the media.
How well Google steers clear of this legal trouble may determine its future success in its online video strategy involving YouTube.com.
Prior to its purchase, YouTube struck several high-profile deals for publishing copyrighted material on its site, but also bowed to pressure to remove other materials that were potentially infringing and for which it could not reach agreements.
In the case of the Bush movie, Flach Film and producer Jean-Francois Lepetit said that users who streamed or downloaded the film for free from Google cut into the movie’s potential revenue under a video-on-demand distribution agreement with Montparnasse Editions.
When informed of the video’s existence on its site, Google reportedly removed the link. However, a search of the U.S. version of Google Video on Monday turned up both streaming and downloadable versions of the film narrated in French with English subtitles.
The film begins with a clip of President Bush speaking to a college graduation and receiving a rousing cheer when he tells the “C students” in the crowd that “you too can be President of the United States.” The film goes on to recount events from the Bush presidency and the role of religion in the current White House.
In the U.S., courts have long held that search engines such as Google enjoy the protection of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), which provides safe harbor to search engines and other Web sites, holding them harmless from action unless they are the direct publishers of the content or if they fail to remove it when being told it is copyrighted or otherwise breaks the law.
As Google’s role evolves, however, so will its interaction with copyright laws around the world. Google is learning as it grows its reach overseas that copyright laws and how they are applied and enforced also vary widely around the world. Europe, in particular, has posed hurdles for the Internet giant.
On Monday, Google said it had reached an agreement that enables it to use the content of two of the top news agencies in Belgium. Those groups and others had sued Google for copyright infringement in connection with the use of their content on the Google News site.
The fact that Google has created a legal war chest in conjunction with the YouTube buy suggests it expects much more in the way of copyright actions in the future, Sterling Market Intelligence Principal Analyst Greg Sterling said.
In addition, Google knows the importance of keeping as much content online as possible. “They want to be video search and delivery providers, but if YouTube doesn’t have the video because it’s been removed for copyright reasons, they’re going to have disappointed users,” Sterling told the E-Commerce Times. “It’s new territory for Google and the Web in general.”