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Is Google's copying complaint fair or hypocritical?

Juan Carlos Perez | Feb. 2, 2011
When involved in a spat over allegations of unauthorized copying or misappropriation of content and ideas, Google -- fairly or not -- usually plays the villain, accused of parasitically overstepping boundaries to profit from someone else's work.

Others have a harder time establishing a direct parallel between the times Google has been accused of copying and Tuesday's incident.

"Although there are parallels, I think this situation is a bit different. In past instances -- YouTube, book search, news headlines -- Google was not copying from a competitor in order to beat that competitor," said Gartner analyst Ray Valdes via e-mail.

Eric Goldman, an associate law professor at Santa Clara University, said it's noteworthy that Google apparently has no plans to sue Microsoft over this. Google likely realizes that in business, it's fair game for companies to copy competitors, as long as what's being copied isn't legally protected under copyright, trademark, patent or other laws, he said.

However, according to Goldman, Google may have set the stage for end-user lawsuits against Microsoft alleging privacy violations. Google said it believes Microsoft is capturing Google user queries inappropriately via Internet Explorer and the Bing toolbar. Microsoft also denies this charge, saying users allow it to capture this "clickthrough" data.

Ultimately, Goldman sees the spat as the latest in a long string of public opinion battles between the two companies. "They look for every opportunity to tweak each other," he said in a phone interview.

Whether coincidental or not, the controversy erupted on the same day of a Microsoft-sponsored search event via an exclusive article on the Search Engine Land blog, which got briefed by Google on its allegations. Google search software engineer Matt Cutts brought up the issue during a panel in which he participated in the event, triggering a verbal scuffle with fellow panelist and Microsoft Vice President Harry Shum.

Some point out that even in the search arena specifically, Google has been itself accused of copying features from competitors, including Bing and

"Google has certainly borrowed from others. I wouldn't say it has stolen outright but it has heavily borrowed at times," said industry analyst Greg Sterling, from Sterling Market Intelligence, in a phone interview.

In this it is not alone, especially among search engines, where "there's widespread watching of competitors and of duplicating things that are seen to be best practices and desirable features," Sterling said.

In addition, in instances such as defending its wholesale digitizing and indexing of library books without always asking for the permission of copyright owners, Google has also relied heavily on the fair use principle, which allows for the unauthorized use of copyright material under certain circumstances and limitations.


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