Google next week will start including the number of copyright-removal notices it receives for websites into its search rankings -- pushing those frequently accused of pirating content lower in the results.
"This ranking change should help users find legitimate, quality sources of content more easily -- whether it's a song previewed on NPR's music website, a TV show on Hulu or new music streamed from Spotify," Google senior vice president of engineering Amit Singhal said in a blog post Friday.
According to Google, it now receives significantly more data from copyright owners about infringing content online than it did before it overhauled its copyright-removal process in 2009.
"In fact, we're now receiving and processing more copyright removal notices every day than we did in all of 2009 -- more than 4.3 million URLs in the last 30 days alone. We will now be using this data as a signal in our search rankings," Singhal said.
The Motion Picture Association of America said it was encouraged about Google's planned change to its search engine algorithms.
"We are optimistic that Google's actions will help steer consumers to the myriad legitimate ways for them to access movies and TV shows online, and away from the rogue cyberlockers, peer-to-peer sites, and other outlaw enterprises that steal the hard work of creators across the globe," Michael O'Leary, MPAA's senior executive vice president for global policy and external affairs, said.
He added, "We will be watching this development closely -- the devil is always in the details -- and look forward to Google taking further steps to ensure that its services favor legitimate businesses and creators, not thieves."
Public Knowledge, however, said Google's new policy would "penalize sites that receive DMCA notices."
Under the 1998 Digital Millennium Copyright Act, website owners are not liable for copyrighted content made available on their services, as long as they promptly respond to complaints from content owners about infringing content.
"Sites may not know about, or have the ability to easily challenge, notices sent to Google," PK senior staff attorney John Bergmayer said. "And Google has set up a system that may be abused by bad faith actors who want to suppress their rivals and competitors."
In his blog post, Google's Singhal noted, "Only copyright holders know if something is authorized, and only courts can decide if a copyright has been infringed; Google cannot determine whether a particular webpage does or does not violate copyright law."
Google said it will not remove any pages from search results "unless we receive a valid copyright removal notice from the rights owner." In addition, the Internet company will continue to provide "counter-notice" tools so that those who believe their content has been wrongly removed can get it reinstated. Singhal said Google will "also continue to be transparent about copyright removals."
The MPAA and other copyright owners believe current legal protections such as the DMCA are insufficient. Media industries backed the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and PROTECT IP Act bills, which among other things would have let copyright owners obtain court orders to force search engines to remove links to pirated content.
In January, Google and others waged publicity efforts urging users to oppose SOPA and PIPA, warning that they could curtail free speech online. The legislation was subsequently tabled.