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January 24, 2013
Harper's Publisher Says Google Steals Its Content, Buries Harper's In Search
I’ve read many an attack on Google for all kinds of reasons, some valid, and some not. I usually don’t encounter one that is so misguided that reading it would turn eye-rolling into an art form. John R. MacArthur publishes Harper’s Magazine. He recently published a rant editorial criticizing Google for “stealing” copyrighted information for the company’s own benefit and profit. “Media barons,” he calls Google executives Larry Page, Sergey Brin, and Eric Schmidt. His complaints are typical of the aggrieved publisher seeking an easy target. Here’s an example:
Google’s bias for search results that list its own products above those of its competitors is now well-known, but equally damaging, and less remarked, is the bias that elevates websites with free content over ones that ask readers to pay at least something for the difficult labor of writing, editing, photographing, drawing, and painting and thinking coherently. Try finding Harper’s Magazine when you Google “magazines that publish essays” or “magazines that publish short stories” — it isn’t easy.
Perhaps, but most people looking for Harper’s would simply type in the name. paidContent points out that only a tiny fraction of individuals would search for Harper’s content that way. I agree. Do most people seriously search for essay collections with that kind of search? I think Google is marvelously useful but it’s not a substitute for a reference librarian. As it turns out, using MacArthur’s search phrase brings up results that include Harper’s, at very least referencing reactions to his essay.
Another one of his statements elicits multiple head scratches:
Or try to get up-to-date news about Xavier Niel and Free through your friendly local Google search engine. Not exactly web neutral, our buddy-philanthropists Larry, Sergey, and Eric.
Perhaps MacArthur hasn’t heard of Google News. Results there show multiple stories as current as today with a deep archive of active, accessible links. Google invites one to set up a news alert that will return up to the minute results. No news blackout there as far as I can see. For the record, Xavier Niel runs the French ISP Free which is doing battle with Google in France over copyright. That country is considering changes to its copyright laws that would require search engines to pay a royalty to link to French media content.
MacArthur further acknowledges that the Federal Trade Commission dropped its investigation in how Google ranks search results. He attributes this to Google’s vast lobbying capability. Most commentators speculated that the FTC may have concluded it couldn’t win a case if it brought one. Even the FTC indicated that while subjective ranking may hurt competitors, it didn’t hurt the consumer. Consumers are the object of the antitrust laws, not competitors.
MacArthur describes himself as “a journalist and board member of the Authors Guild.” I think I know where he gets his outlook on the Internet. The Guild has been fighting a losing battle to suppress indexing of content in its members books. The HathiTrust case comes to mind. Despite the rejection of the settlement in the Google book scanning case, it’s an open question of whether the Guild will prevail on the ultimate copyright issue if the HathiTrust case holds up on appeal.
It’s easy to lament the fact that online versions of newspapers and magazines do not generate the same kind of revenue as their print products had in the past. There are a couple of alternatives MacArthur could take. He could lobby Congress to change the copyright laws to better protect his product. He could remove all of his content references from Google. Rupert Murdoch threatened that but never followed through. I wonder why. Or he could put Harper’s content behind a complete and very thorough pay wall. Consumers can then decide if its value is worth the charge for access. I’ll mention that I read a lot of online materials in The Atlantic, the New Yorker, Slate, Salon, The Daily Beast and comparable publications. Their writers and bloggers are not shy about commenting on and linking to stories on other sites. I never see references to Harper’s. I’ll ask again, I wonder why? [MG]