Two years after it was taken to court by Getty Images over a series of issues, among them copyright of its photos — an area that is still out of step with the digital age — Google has agreed to eliminate certain functions of its image search, Google Images. Google has removed the “view image” button that allowed users to open an image immediately, as well as to search for others of different sizes or with similarities, etc. Needless to say, within 48 hours a developer had already devised a way to recreate those functions through an extension in the browser. Plus ça change…
Google Images’ decision is a textbook example of negative innovation. Getty Images, which makes its living from selling photographs on the web, has argued that the “view image” button was being used to download its images and use them without a license, thus violating its copyright. Google Image users will now have to visit the website where the image was found, where presumably they will be confronted with the conditions of use. Google Images had already placed a warning that images might be subject to intellectual property rights, and has now located it more prominently.
It’s worth pausing here for a moment and asking what an image search tool is for? To find images, right? And Google Images does it very well, which has made it very popular. Removing the “view image” button simply adds a few steps to the previous process. But that’s not the issue; the issue here is that Google already had a product that worked perfectly, and has now decided to spoil it just because a company has accused it of allowing some people to breach its copyright.
The issue goes to the heart of the debate about what type of web we want. On the internet, every image we see on our browser has been downloaded to our computer, and any image we see on our screen can be captured by tapping a few keys. Getty Images and Google know this, so when they consciously make the decision to spoil the search functions of Google Images and thus make Google Images a poorer search engine, with fewer features, they do so knowing the impact it will have on millions of people. And the reason they do so is because Getty Images says the feature can be abused. They also know that we will all find a way round it, but must be seen to be doing something.
What is the outcome of such an absurd decision? Is Getty Images now going to pursue developers who create extensions and will it demand that Google remove them from its catalog, even though they can be installed from another page? Is the objective here simply to make it slightly more difficult to download images and thus put a few people off? Is the idea to limit downloading of images to those who know how to install an extension in a browser? What logic drives Getty Images to act in this way? If your business is to prevent others from accessing a certain set of bits on the internet, you don’t have a business anymore, you’re just an anomaly. The internet doesn’t work like that.
If you want to prevent people from using your images by watermarking on them, you also have a problem, because whoever buys the rights to use those images has the right to put them on their pages without the watermark, meaning those images can be downloaded freely (attempts to prevent this using technology have proved a pathetic waste of time). Obviously, anybody doing this knows they are violating somebody’s intellectual property rights, but the other point here is that copyright laws as we know them make no sense in the digital age. We all know that there is nothing easier than downloading an image from the Internet. If you want to protect your intellectual property rights, your only hope is to make it difficult for other people to use your images.
We all know that using a watermarked image or one that has been clumsily disguised with an editing program is unacceptable. We also know that anybody determined enough will find a copy of the image they want without a watermark. We also know that it makes no sense to redesign a perfectly good service on the basis that some people might misuse it. It’s the same with the new Amazon stores: sure, somebody might go into one with the intention of shoplifting and somehow avoid detection by the myriad cameras and sensors. Does that mean Amazon should redesign its stores and provide customers with an inferior experience? No. Businesses can’t function on the basis that their customers are thieves. Products designed with wrongdoers in mind tend not to provide very satisfactory experiences.
It remains to be seen if Google’s decision really changes anything for the better. It can often take time before common sense prevails in a particular situation. That said, as we approach the fourth decade of the internet, one might be forgiven for wondering how long some businesses will take to adapt to the digital age…
(En español, aquí)