Livelihoods are at stake: Google must block illegal downloading websites

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When I was 14 years old, I wrote what I considered my first serious short story, alarmingly titled, “The Midlife Crisis Exploits.” As soon as I finished it, I filled out a form, attached a small check, and sent it off to the Copyright Office in Washington, D.C. I was only fourteen, but I understood that the law protected me and my story, and that the government would help out in the event of trouble, presumably by producing my story from some vast underground warehouse and confirming that I had sent it to them on the date it was postmarked.

No one ever did try to steal that story – in fact, no one ever read it except my parents.

{mosads}But thirty-odd-years later, I started writing a TV program about KGB spies called “The Americans,” and this time people are stealing it. If you’re near a computer – or reading this on one – take a minute to type, “The Americans free download” into your search engine. (DO NOT CLICK ANY LINK THAT COMES UP – YOU MIGHT INFECT YOUR COMPUTER WITH MALWARE.)

What you’ll see come up on your screen, somewhere on the first page, are a number of links to pirate sites that offer free downloads of “The Americans.” Clicking on links like these, and then downloading or streaming television shows or movies, is the modern version of walking into a video store and sliding a DVD into your jacket pocket – you’re just a lot less likely to get caught.

It’s a little bit hard to figure out the role of the search engine – usually Google – in all of this, mostly because we haven’t been in this new world for very long. Sometimes I think the illegal downloader is the thief, and Google is driving the getaway car. But that’s not quite right. Let’s try this: Google is the subway system that takes you around the internet. If people keep getting mugged on the subway, you eventually insist the subway system improve its security. Hire some cops. Clean up the stations. If the people in charge of the subway don’t like those solutions, they can try some different ones. But they have to figure it out.

Not too long ago, the music industry got stabbed, and almost bled to death on the floor of the train. They haven’t recovered, and maybe never will. I’m getting mugged right now. So are all of my colleagues in the film and television industry. Behind every episode of every television show lies a vast community of directors, writers, producers, caterers, truck drivers, electricians, set-builders, and many others – hundreds of thousands of people in the entertainment industry whose salaries, pensions, welfare, and health benefits are directly affected by piracy. This is not to mention roughly another million and a half Americans who work in the hotels our casts stay in, dry cleaners our wardrobe departments use, lumber suppliers where we get the wood to build our sets – an almost endless list of businesses that are part of our ecosystem.

YouTube and Google collectively receive more than 900 million takedown notices per year around pirated videos, from artists and companies who are desperate to keep their works from being streamed illegally, and without compensation. Google takes the links down, but new ones go right back up, and Google puts the links to these openly criminal sites at the top of its search results.

Could Google actually solve this problem? It’s worth noting they have done a fairly effective job of making it hard to get child pornography on the internet. Not impossible, but much harder than it used to be. They know how to do this when they want to.

But when it comes to stopping people from stealing copyrighted work, Google is not interested. In fact, they fight virtually every law that would hold them accountable for what happens on their platform.

I can’t help it, I use Google every day. I remember when it all started, and I’m still, for now, holding on to the part of me that likes them. So I want to let them know, they’ve got it backwards. Taking responsibility – not just accepting accountability, but actually wanting it – is part of growing up. And if Google doesn’t grow up soon, their reputation, their integrity – all the things great companies depend on – will continue to fade. You can feel it happening right now. Maybe the legal system will force them to take responsibility for what they’ve created.  Or maybe the market will do it. The proverbial kid in his basement (or just another big company) will build a better search engine while effectively filtering out property thieves, child pornographers, and foreign bots. Wouldn’t you switch to that search engine tomorrow? Shouldn’t Google come up with it first – without being forced to?

Joe Weisberg is the Creator and Executive Producer of “The Americans” on FX. He traveled to Washington, D.C. last month with CreativeFuture, an organization that advocates for stronger copyright protections for the creative community, to speak with members of Congress on how to protect intellectual property on the internet.


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