Power Grab: Is Google Trying to End Copyrights Once and For All?

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By Emily Zanotti | 1:43 pm, October 27, 2016

Google has been on a quest to limit copyright holders’ rights when it comes to the written word, even winning a landmark Supreme Court case declaring that its Google Books program, which digitizes hundreds of books, was creating “transformative works,” and not infringing on authors’ copyright.

Now, it seems, that Google is making a play for an even greater target: television. And they’ve already stacked the government deck in their favor. What’s at stake here? One of the greatest land-grabs in the history of content. And no one is looking.

The Internet search company rolled out a prototype “set-top box” in August, one that they say could revolutionize how Americans watch television, by letting them pick and choose from cable providers, streaming services and the Internet.

Cable TV companies were immediately alarmed — after all, such a product would give consumers access to raw cable streams (infringing, they say, on a number of copyright protections), and limit their ability to sell cable as a package to consumers through cable boxes. It would also let Google “overhaul channel lineups, tweak how videos are presented…and interfere with traditional cable licensing deals.

But this opposition may be coming too late. Google appears to have already placed friendly officials high places, while using its sway with academics to make its case with the FCC that your cable — and cable’s copyrights — should be free.

Starting in 2016, Google-related appointees began appearing across the Obama Administration. Carla Hayden, who recently took over at the Library of Congress, was President of the American Library Association, a huge recipient of Google funding (largely because of Google’s digital library programs). The Library of Congress, of course, is home to the US Copyright Office, and the Register of Copyrights — America’s highest ranking copryight official.

When the set-top box proposal came to Congress, they of course turned to the US Copyright Office for insight as to whether Google, among other set-top box companies, might be infringing on cable’s copyright.

Google appeared to immediately exert its power. Five copyright academics sent a letter to the US Copyright Office defending set-top boxes, and all five had at least some ties to Google.

Signer Peter Jazsi was a member of Google’s policy fellowship program, an advocate on IP issues, and a founder of the Digital Future Coalition, which includes several organizations funded by Google. Signer Pam Samuelson, a Berkeley School of Information professor, is on the board of several non-profits that receive significant grants from Google. Signer Annemarie Bridy was a scholar at Stanford University’s Center for Internet & Society, whose largest corporate benefactor is Google.

Many of those same groups pushed back when Register of Copyrights Maria Pallante said it was likely set-top devices could infringe on cable companies’ copyrights. One group, Public Knowledge, even claimed Pallante was in the pocket of cable and entertainment interests.

Weirdly, as soon as the new Library of Congress head (Hayden) was sworn in, Pallante lost her job as Register of Copyrights. She was first demoted and then resigned, opening up a space — conveniently — for a friendlier Registrar.

Movement on a proposal to approve or regulate set-top boxes has since stalled and the FCC is still wavering on what to do. In September, the FCC thought they had an airtight plan, only to see cable companies bristle, so it’s back to the drawing board.

But it’s clear Google is digging in for the long haul, with friendly faces and pressure coalitions on its side, conspiring to create a landscape where Google can challenge cable’s copyrights well beyond just the current battle over your TV.