If Google Was New York City & Online Piracy Was Knock-Off Handbags…

Imagine my shock when I used Bing to search for “Where to buy knockoff products in New York” and found a treasure trove of information on the web leading me to an apparently little-known area of New York City where such products are available around Canal Street:

Imagine my further shock to discover that major companies such as Demand Media, Yahoo, TripAdvisor and Yelp were all providing information that Bing listed on how to locate this area.

Imagine my even further shock to discover that in today’s US congressional hearing about fending off such intellectual property theft, no one apparently asked what Bing was doing to stop this. No one seems to have asked why these major companies are hosting  this information and how to stop them, either.

Piracy Galore In New York City!

Nor, does it appear, that US government, New York state or New York City authorities have acted to close this area down. Why, in a few simple searches on Twitter, I can find people talking about getting fake goods on Canal within the past few days.

Is the area unknown to the authorities? No. According to a New York Times article from 2002 that I found in my Bing search above — actually, a copy of the article apparently reprinted without permission — authorities have been fighting a war against counterfeit sales in this notorious area for literally decades.

Another article, from 2004, said that New York City accounts for 8% of the total counterfeit sales in the United States. Another said the city has fought back with things like ads linking counterfeit products to child labor and statements that counterfeits support terrorism.

Why Doesn’t The Government Act?

How can this continue to happen year-after-year, in the face of the might of the United States government, which is still fighting a war against terrorism, in a relatively small area within the heart of America’s largest city?

I mean, if you can’t break piracy there, you can’t break it anywhere, to put some new lyrics to Frank Sinatra’s classic.

Perhaps people in the US government are spending too much time gasping that in a search for “free mp3 taylor swift,” Google returned results that may or may not actually allow for downloading songs by the singer for free.

Bringing It Back To Google

Both Ars Technica and Techdirt have coverage of today’s hearing (and Techmeme provides even more), where Google comes out sounding complacent about fighting piracy, other search engines appear not to exist, and legislators seem to think there’s some magic wand that Google can wave to make online piracy just disappear.

Make no mistake. I’d like to see Google wipe out those who infringe copyright and intellectual property myself. Our own content gets stolen online, and as I’ve covered in the past, it can be just too much hassle going through the complicated procedures to get it pulled out of Google, much less off the web itself.

And I totally agree, it seems wrong that Google can reward sites that aid in infringement. For example, the second season of the Australian TV show “Sea Patrol” isn’t online anywhere in the US. I know this, because I know that Clicker — which consistently lists only legitimate sources offering TV content online– says that only season one is available, through Hulu.

So why am I getting sites like Blinx or Sidereel coming up tops? While they don’t host the content, they point to places that do — and places that do illegally, as best I can tell. Meanwhile, Hulu doesn’t get listed in the top results.

Of course, if Google should block them, no doubt the US Congress will have another hearing, this time about whether Google is acting as a monopoly in blocking these vertical search engines.

Boulevards Vs. Back Streets

It’s also easy to make the problem seem worse than it is. Just because you can pick any search and show there are sites hosting, or purporting to host, illegal content, that doesn’t mean the majority of people are actually getting to content this way.

It’s similar to the real world. Even though it’s easy to find a knock-off product in New York, relatively few people go out of their way into the back streets to do it. Fewer of these people were likely to have purchased the real product.

Again, this isn’t an excuse for what goes on. It’s simply a reality check. Pressuring Google to help fight online piracy happening on the main boulevards of the internet is one thing. Pressuring Google to fight online piracy that goes on in the back streets of the internet is another.

No Easy Answers

The issues involved are tricky. There is no magic wand that can be waved. We could use better laws, not to mention faster ways for those who are honestly being infringed to get pirated material out of Google, not to mention off the web.

But the effort should be done in a way that doesn’t just seem to be catering to Hollywood, simply because it has the loudest voice. It shouldn’t be done in a way that causes innocent sites to get caught up, especially when major companies have shown themselves repeatedly not concerned about trampling over legitimate fair use that happens.

And it shouldn’t be done as if Google is solely responsible for online piracy and somehow able to make it stop.

Postscript: Looking at a CNET story, I see Debbie Wasserman-Schultz (D-Fla) has raised the issue in th past about how searching for “knock-off” in Google provides links to illegal goods. In the hearing, she chastised Google for not fixing this:

You’re Google. You helped overthrow the head of an entire country in a weekend.

Right back at you, Wasserman-Schultz. You’re the United States government, and you’ve helped overthrow countries. And yet, you can’t stop real-life piracy on the streets of New York?

Restraining order image from Maveric2003, used under Creative Commons license.

Related Topics: Channel: Video | Features: Analysis | Google: Critics | Legal: Copyright | Top News


About The Author: is a Founding Editor of Search Engine Land. He’s a widely cited authority on search engines and search marketing issues who has covered the space since 1996. Danny also serves as Chief Content Officer for Third Door Media, which publishes Search Engine Land and produces the SMX: Search Marketing Expo conference series. He has a personal blog called Daggle (and keeps his disclosures page there). He can be found on Facebook, Google + and microblogs on Twitter as @dannysullivan.

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  • http://www.ambientlightmedia.com Steven Blatt

    Canal St, especially that area (Chinatown) is a huge tourist draw and has one of the highest store rents in the city. Every once in a while the city performs a token crackdown on Knock Offs but it is rampant. Tourists flock to that downtown area and they spend a lot of money on restaurants and legitimate items. All the brand name stores are only a block or two away on Broadway.

    Why is it a search engines responsibility anyway..?
    I personally do not want my searches filtered anymore than they already are, preferably not at all. I want to see everything and make my own decisions.

  • http://speeddatingnyc.co Brad Xavier

    So now Search Engine Land is going to tell New York how to function? Lol

    There’s another small issue here as well… Nobody uses Bing.

  • Scott

    I have to completely disagree. If you ask a friend where to buy knock-off bags, are you going to publicly hold them accountable if they answer your question? No, you won’t, so why are you doing so with Google? Google is an online search and advertising company, not a law enforcement agency. If you’re going to hold Google responsible, then you have to hold all similar parties responsible:

    The ISPs that host the sites
    Mapquest for providing directions to that area of town
    Rand McNally for producing maps that allow a person to find that area of town
    Car makers who produce products that allow people to get to that area of town
    Corrective lens manufacturers for making products that allow people to see those search results

    What happens if Google complies with your request to police the world, but you don’t agree with their definition of legality for a certain item? Who gets to tell Google which items are illegal and which aren’t? How far-reaching is Google’s police work supposed to expand? What should they be responsible for and what should actual law enforcement agencies be responsible for?

    Let’s get real. Google is not the criminal here, the criminals are the criminals. Google’s search engine is simply a question-and-answer service – no more, no less.

  • http://searchengineland.com Jonathan Hochman
  • Milos

    In reference to Chinatown, you are misunderstanding the concept of copyright. Copyright has to do with intangible intellectual property. A handbag is not intangible nor intellectual property. The schematics may be patented and the logo is a trademark but that is as far as it goes. The only time that copyright may come into play is if they are selling knockoff DVDs or CDs.

    In reference to everything else. I completely agree with Scott. Google is a search engine. Not a law enforcement agency.

  • http://brian.mastenbrook.net Brian Mastenbrook

    Isn’t there a bit of a difference between these two scenarios? In your first example, you specifically searched for knock-off products. In the second example, you searched for a particular show and got pirated content, without adding something like “torrent” or “pirate” to your query. Additionally knock-off products tread a fine line, since clothing and handbag designs aren’t generally protectable in the US as I understand it. A knock-off product can be perfectly legal if it doesn’t use something confusingly similar to the trademark of the real brand.

    Piracy, on the other hand, is always illegal. Any time I search on something media-related (especially music), Google’s whispering at me: “Psst! Yes, over here. Would you like to pirate this content?”, and it usually comes up ahead of places where I can buy the content legitimately. I don’t have to add “free” or “torrent” or anything similar to my query; I get it anyway! It’s actually very annoying and from my perspective indistinguishable from spam. It definitely shows that piracy is not the “back streets” of the internet; Google considers it to be more relevant in many cases than legitimate sources of content.

    Just to add some data points to the discussion, here’s what comes up for the last few albums I’ve bought or searched for with the intention of buying:

    Stanton Warriors – The Warriors: Pirated downloads are results #6 (beemp3.com) and #7 (clubmusic.livejournal.com); what appears to be a legitimate download source is #3 (traxsource.com)

    Umek – Toolroom Knights: When I search for this as ‘toolroom knights umek’ (sans quotes), the top result offers a pirated copy (www.housemusicparty.info). That search construction is natural to me because Toolroom Knights is a long-running series; if I reverse it to ‘umek toolroom knights’ the top result is… a different pirated copy (living-techno.blogspot.com).

    Toolroom Records Miami 2011: Once again, a pirated copy is the top hit. If I use ‘toolroom miami 2011′, the first three hits are official and the fourth is a pirated copy.

    Anjunadeep 03: Shockingly, this one has only legitimate news, paid download sites, and reviews in the first page of results.

    BSD – Malditos Bass-Star-Dos!: TPB is result #2. #1 is a news site.

    Markus Schulz – Prague ’11: filestube.com is result #4; the first three results are news and information from the record label.

    I could keep going through my recently added list in iTunes, but I think the point is established by now. I don’t have to search for pirated materials specifically; Google hands them to me. While I’d be cautious of legal solutions, I’m rather annoyed that Google doesn’t clean this up of its own accord. Google can and should have its feet held to the fire by its users and the media for this.

  • http://searchengineland.com/ Danny Sullivan

    Scott, not sure if you’re disagreeing with me or some US congressional representatives.

    For myself, I think Google does have some responsibility to ensure that first of all, its results are relevant. And many sites purporting to offer free video or mp3 files don’t really do that.

    Secondly, I do think there’s some responsibility to pull any major infringers that are taking top spots away from original content. Someone copies one of my articles entirely, without permission, then starts somehow outranking me? Yeah, I’d like to cut off their Google oxygen.

    But I agree, it is very tricky when you start getting into some gray areas about what’s illegal and what’s not — or even where, as local laws vary.

    Milos, a knock-off handbag is indeed stealing someone else’s work. See the notice above — trademark counterfeiting. Do it, and it’s effectively real work, real goods piracy.

    Brian, piracy can be in the eyes of the beholder. If I put up a 30 sec clip from some TV show, that potentially is fair use. But a major rights holder might trot out that it’s infringing, get congressional buddies to back them up, and there’s your YouTube account closed and potentially, your web site shut down.

    But are you really suggesting that Google is more responsible to police the streets of the internet than the US government is to stop knock-off goods in New York? That’s the point I’m trying to make. Piracy in New York has happened for decades in the same spot, and law enforcement hasn’t stopped it. But legislators think Google has some magic wand to wave to make it go away across the entire internet?

    That’s really hard.

    Point taken — if you do searches, and Google rewards sites offering pirated content with top rankings, that’s no deterrent. But there’s a larger issue in all this, too. If the rights holders themselves aren’t offering the product or something decent to appear, then pushing the pirates down into the back streets is harder.

    I have a longer piece for the future on this, but see also one of the stories below about how Google rolled something out recently for TV producers to flag official sites. That’s part of trying to help them be more visible.

    But also look at your own behavior, You, I’m guessing, actually buy your music probably through iTunes. So although you or others can do these searches on Google, and demonstrate that there is pirated content there, that doesn’t indicated that most people are getting their music that way — especially when there are inexpensive, safer and far more convenient ways to do it.

    In the end, if Sea Patrol Season Two isn’t offered in the US through legitimate channels, then all the yelling at Google — or Bing for that matter — isn’t going to help. There are so many ways I can potentially search for that, and there are so many sites that can spring-up for Google to play wack-a-mole against. Even laws to go after the offenders is tough, if they establish themselves in different countries.

    I’m not excusing the behavior, nor saying Google shouldn’t do anything. But it can’t do it alone, and asking Google to somehow win the “War On Piracy” on its own — and in the face of demand that won’t go away and has no legitimate supply — is tough.

  • http://www.rimmkaufman.com George Michie

    Picking up where Scott left off, there are two criminals here: 1) the pirate; and 2) the consumer of the piracy. Google, Map Quest, and the car you take to get there have much, much less responsibility to prevent the criminals from connecting. If we want to get serious about piracy we should encourage Google to turn over records to the police of everyone searching for pirated content. Setting up some sort of automated police tracking system as part of every OS and applying automatic fines (through paypal :-)) would end the criminal enterprise in a hurry.

    Not advocating that, but…

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