Google Search, Copyright Penalties

Google Search, Copyright Penalties

by Stephanie Morrow, January 2013

Google's search algorithm is one of the most closely guarded secrets in Internet history, but the mega-corporation, which owns everything from Google Earth, Google Mobile and Google Maps to YouTube, Adwords and dMarc Broadcasting, recently announced it will be discouraging the promotion of websites that use copyright infringing content by lowering their search result listings on Google.

Copyright Basics

Copyright law is a form of intellectual property rights, which allow owners, inventors and creators of property the protection from unauthorized use. The primary forms of intellectual property are patents, copyrights and trademarks—and copyrights protect works such as books, periodicals, manuscripts, music, film and video productions, computer software and works of art. Authors of any of these works have exclusive rights to the work they produce, whether it is published or unpublished. Basically, as soon as you compose a work of art, write a story or record a tune, it is automatically copyrighted. Section 106 of the 1976 Copyright Act gives the owner of the copyright the exclusive right to do, and authorize others to do, the following:

  • Reproduce the work;
  • Prepare derivative works based upon the work;
  • Distribute copies of the work to the public;
  • Perform the work publicly; and
  • Display the copyrighted work publicly.


Confusion has arisen as to what is and is not protected under the 1976 Copyright Act over the Internet because it is not mandatory to secure a copyright through registration with the government—someone's work is automatically copyrighted as soon as it is created. Whether or not a work is copyrighted by formally registering a copyright with the U.S. Copyright Office, which permits the owner to insert the copyright © notice, the creator of a work still holds a valid copyright in the work as soon as the work is created.

If a creator does not insert the copyright notice or register the copyright and sees his or her work on another website, the creator can notify the infringer that the work is copyrighted, and once this notification occurs, the website owner must remove the work from the site or face legal penalties. However, getting a work removed may be easier said than done. Google receives daily requests from copyright owners to have sites removed that are allegedly using their copyrighted material. In fact, according to Google's transparency report, Google received more than 11.6 million copyright removal requests in November 2011 alone.

How does Google's new condition affect website owners? Sites that receive a high amount of copyright removal notices will begin to appear lower in Google's search results list, which lowers the chances of their site being seen by consumers. How can you protect your website from being lowered in Google's popular search? Below are some tips to help ensure that your website maintains its ranking through the most popular search engine on the Web:

1. Do Not Use Copyrighted Materials

Probably the easiest way to protect a website from having its Google ranking lowered under the new rules is to only post content that you have created or you know you have the rights to. Refrain from having any copyrighted images or content on the website if you do not own the copyright. For example, if you retrieve an image from a free image or purchase the image from royalty site that allows you to purchase or license images, you will likely not run afoul of the new Google rules. However, if you do have copyrighted materials for which you do not have usage rights, and you are contacted by the copyright owner, remove the materials immediately before the creator contacts Google with a formal complaint, which could potentially disrupt the search listing of your website.

2. Check, and Double-Check, the Website

Appoint an employee to be in charge of reviewing the website for copyrighted materials frequently, depending on how often the site is updated. This review could be done monthly or quarterly and should include an inspection of all images, content, logos and any other content that may be protected by copyright. If you are unsure, have the employee be proactive and contact the copyright owner to ensure the usage is valid. An employee should also ensure that frivolous takedown requests have not been filed against the company and, if so, that they are dealt with immediately.

3. Know Your Designers

Use only reputable Web designers who have a strong knowledge of copyright laws and the consequences of using other people's work without permission. You should have an initial discussion with your designers to confirm they can identify the ramifications of trademark and copyright laws, and this knowledge should be specified in a written agreement between you and them. This written agreement should stipulate that the designers are aware of copyright and other intellectual property laws and will make reasonable efforts to ensure that the site does not violate these laws.

4. Have an Official Takedown Policy

Make sure you have a takedown policy, in writing, which stipulates how your company handles copyright issues concerning content on your site. If you are contacted by a creator accusing your site of infringing his or her copyright, you can refer the creator to this policy and explain that you will be removing the content immediately based on the takedown policy stipulations. This will hopefully discourage the copyright holder from filing a formal complaint and instead to wait for his or her work to be removed from the site. In addition, include a terms and conditions section on the website that specifically explains how content should be uploaded on your site, and if content can be uploaded by outside individuals, ensure that those outside individuals agree that what they are posting does not infringe on any copyrights. Outside users should not be permitted to post content until they have agreed to these terms and conditions.

Google's Search Power

In comparison to popular search engines like Yahoo and Bing, Google hosts more than 66% of all online searches. Both Yahoo and Bing have efficient methods of dealing with copyright infringement through their legal pages to disable or terminate accounts at their discretion, which may repeatedly infringe the copyrights of other's intellectual property. In addition, Yahoo is known for being quick in dealing with copyright infringements and open to listening to customers' complaints of potential erroneous copyright infringement reports. However, it appears that only Google will automatically lower search results for any sites that have a high number of removal notices.

Google does not specify what constitutes a high number of removal notices—therefore, business owners should be proactive and make sure their websites are free from copyrighted materials. This due diligence is extremely important because Google does not determine whether the takedown requests are false accusations of copyright infringement—it is essentially a numbers game. Anyone who has a website for their business understands the importance of a high ranking in Google's search results, and using content without permission could significantly damage that ranking.