Out-Law News 3 min. read

Google image search infringes copyright, says judge

The publisher of adult website and magazine Perfect 10 has won a partial victory in its attempt to prohibit Google from copying and displaying Perfect 10’s copyrighted images in the results pages of its image search tool.

Judge A Howard Matz of the Central District of California ruled that “Google’s creation and public display of 'thumbnails' likely do directly infringe P10’s copyrights” and that he will grant a preliminary injunction on this aspect of the case on 8th March.

Judge Matz also found that Perfect 10 was unlikely to succeed on broader claims that Google was liable for providing links to websites that were using Perfect 10’s copyrighted images without authorisation. He therefore refused to grant a preliminary injunction on this front.

The case, which is likely to be appealed, has not yet been scheduled for trial.


Perfect 10 sued Google in November of 2004, arguing that, under the guise of being a search engine, Google is displaying, free of charge, thousands of copies of the best images from Perfect 10, Playboy, nude scenes from major movies, nude images of supermodels, as well as extremely explicit images of all kinds.

The action, which seeks an unspecified amount of damages, followed a copyright ruling in 2002 relating to a search engine that provided miniature images in search results, known as thumbnails, and linked to the original image framed within the search engine's own site.

On that occasion the court ruled that thumbnails themselves did not infringe copyright because they amounted to "fair use" of the originals.

While Google uses only thumbnails in its search results, the search shows links to sites that use full size versions of the images – in breach of copyright law, says Perfect 10.

Many of these sites make use of Google’s AdSense service, which displays Google adverts, paid for by members of the search engine’s AdWords service. This means that Google is also profiting from third parties’ unauthorised use of Perfect 10’s porn, according to Perfect 10.

The publisher also argues that Google’s thumbnails are of sufficient quality to be used for download onto mobile phones – in competition with a mobile download service licensed from Perfect 10 by the UK’s Fonestarz Media Limited.

The ruling

In a ruling published yesterday, Judge Howard Matz found that Perfect 10 is likely to succeed on the issue of the display of thumbnails, but not on the question of linking to a larger image displayed on infringing sites.

The thumbnails, said the Judge, are a direct infringement of copyright, but may be permitted through the ‘fair use’ defence. But, unlike the 2002 ruling, “Google’s thumbnails lead users to sites that directly benefit Google’s bottom line”. In effect, he said, linking to sites that use Google’s AdSense service makes the thumbnails much more commercial.

Google had argued that it had a policy in place to prevent such web pages being displayed, but had not provided the Court with evidence of how this policy was enforced.

The Judge was also concerned that the Google thumbnails could compete with Fonestarz’ download service.

“Google’s thumbnail images are essentially the same size and of the same quality as the reduced-size images that P10 licenses to Fonestarz,” he explained. “Hence, to the extent that users may choose to download free images to their phone rather than purchase P10’s reduced-size images, Google’s use supersedes P10’s.”

Accordingly the fair use factor favoured Perfect 10 and not Google, said Judge Matz.

He added: “The Court reaches this conclusion despite the enormous public benefit that search engines such as Google provide. Although the Court is reluctant to issue a ruling that might impede the advance of internet technology, and although it is appropriate for courts to consider the immense value to the public of such technologies, existing judicial precedents do not allow such considerations to trump a reasoned analysis of the four fair use factors.”

The Court then considered the question of Google’s liability for secondary copyright infringement – that it knew of, allowed, contributed to and profited from the copyright infringement of Perfect 10’s photos by other websites.

Perfect 10 argued that Google was in a position akin to the original Napster service. When it served as a music-swapping site it was found guilty in 2001 of contributory and vicarious copyright infringement. Napster has since been re-launched as a legal music download site.

The Court disliked the comparison. Google did not “materially contribute” to the infringements by third-party websites.

“Google resembles Napster only in facilitating searches (i.e., helping users find information) – and even then there are significant differences. Whereas Napster dedicated itself to helping users locate audio files found on the otherwise inaccessible hard drives of individual users, Google helps users locate all types of information … found on the entire, publicly accessible web,” said the Judge.

“P10 overstates Google’s actual conduct and confuses search technology with active encouragement and promotion of infringing activity,” he added.

And while Google does benefit from the infringing websites through its AdSense programme, it has little control over those sites. All Google can do is to remove a link to the infringing sites – which do not disappear from the internet and are still accessible.

"While we're disappointed with portions of the ruling, we are pleased with Judge Matz's favourable ruling on linking and other aspects of Google Image Search,” Google spokesman Michael Kwun told the Associated Press. “We anticipate that any preliminary injunction will have no effect on the vast majority of image searches, and will affect only searches related to Perfect 10."

Google is likely to appeal the ruling.

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