Google's 100 million notices

The global music industry has now sent its 100 millionth music piracy notice to Google. That’s a staggering number and it is worth pausing for a moment to assess what it means and what it says about online music.

For starters, that’s at least 100 million times Google offered to direct users to illegal sources for music just within the last two years. That’s also 100 million times that an artist, songwriter, music label – or anyone else involved in the chain of creating and distributing music – was likely denied the opportunity to earn any royalties, revenues or sales. And 100 million times that innovative tech companies – like Spotify, iTunes, Amazon, Deezer, Vevo, and dozens more – didn’t benefit from a sale or a stream.

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Surely there must be a better way for users to be directed to legitimate sources of the music they seek instead of illegal ones, a way that preserves the integrity and genius of Google’s search algorithm but also protects the rights of creators and the businesses that invest in them. This will no doubt be a focus of House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte’s (R-Va.) ongoing hearings reviewing federal copyright laws and the Patent and Trademark Office’s (PTO) similar effort, and we look forward to participating in these initiatives.

We understand this is not a one way street – we need to do our part. That’s why the major record companies we represent have partnered with Google and dozens of other technology companies to offer fans millions of digital songs in almost every conceivable model. In fact, the legitimate digital marketplace has become so vibrant and competitive that we felt the need to develop a one-stop website – whymusicmatters.com -- to help consumers understand and navigate the full range of legal service options.

As the undisputed leader in search, we hope Google will join us and do its part as well.

To be sure, Google has taken some important steps, offering users a compelling licensed music streaming service, and Google Play is earning well-deserved online reviews. Google has also made significant changes in its online tools for processing piracy notices from copyright owners, and those notices are being processed and catalogued more efficiently and expeditiously. Last summer, Google said it would “begin taking into account a new signal in our rankings: the number of valid copyright removal notices we receive for any given site. Sites with high numbers of removal notices may appear lower in our results.”

Unfortunately, this commendable promise remains unfulfilled. We’ve seen no demonstrable demotion of sites that receive a high volume of piracy notices.

In fact, when a user searches for virtually any prominent artist and song and “mp3,” the first result served up by Google’s own auto-complete function is usually mp3skull.com -- a site that’s received more than two million music piracy notices and is among the top offenders on Google’s own public listing of sites receiving the most piracy notices. More broadly, rogue sites we analyzed managed to appear on page 1 of search results over 98% of the time in the searches we conducted.What’s even more frustrating is that a significant portion of our piracy notices are repeat notices for the same song found on the same illicit site.

So the enforcement system we operate under requires us to send a staggering number of piracy notices – 100 million and counting to Google alone—and an equally staggering number of takedowns Google must process. And yet pirated copies continue to proliferate and users are bombarded with search results to illegal sources over legal sources for the music they love.

The power of search and the predominant popularity of top-tier results are well documented – particularly in their capacity to steer users to illegal sites. A Wiggins study, for example, found that “65% of ‘pirates’ regularly use search engines to find infringing content.” Similar studies have found similar results.

And the importance of music within search has been similarly chronicled. Google’s own recently- announced analysis of top 2013 user searches showed that recording artists comprised 9 of the top 10 searches for people.

So, can we move forward and build an even better online music marketplace, for Google’s users and for the music community? There are plenty of examples where others in the Internet ecosystem have forged constructive partnerships to provide a safer and more secure Internet, to better foster legal commerce. In the United States, the major ISPs and motion picture and music industries have agreed upon an historic copyright alert system. There are anti-piracy best practices agreements with payment processors and advertising networks. It can be done.

Our five-point plan is simple, straightforward and readily achievable by Google and others in search:

  • fulfill the admirable promise to demote sites receiving extensive numbers of piracy notices
  • make sure that the “take down” of a song is meaningful - not repopulated online two seconds later
  • educate users by identifying authorized sites with a consumer-friendly “icon”
  • stop leading users to illegal sites through autocomplete
  • give your repeat offender policies some teeth

None of these steps would interfere with the user experience that fans of Google have come to expect. It would signal a new day and unprecedented collaboration between one of the world’s leading technology companies and the global music business. It’s a win for everyone. What are we waiting for?

Sherman is chairman and CEO of RIAA.