A plea to all the reactionaries who are thinking about jumping onto the anti-Google bandwagon over the latest beta of the Google Toolbar: perhaps you might think about trying the freaking thing before you lambast the company for behavior that you’re inventing?

For those who haven’t come across the brouhaha today, the Toolbar now has a feature, called AutoLink, that is able to search a web page for specific forms of information and then link that information to sites that provide additional detail. (For example, it can turn a FedEx tracking number into a link to FedEx’s package tracking site.) Almost every outrage I’ve read today decries the horror of Google “automatically” rewriting the text of web pages, neglecting to mention that there’s nothing automatic about it, but rather the user has to click on the AutoLink button in the toolbar in order to use the feature. So it’s no different than the “highlight search text” button — it’s a way for the user to choose to modify the information in a web page in a fashion that’s useful to them. It’s also no different than a user choosing to zoom in on images, change the display of nofollow links, or even block popup ads, in that users are making conscious choices to increase the utility of their web browsing experience.

(And understand that even if the user didn’t have to click on the AutoLink button, I’m still of the belief that installing the Toolbar, or any tool, constitutes a choice made by the user to accept the utility offered by the tool. Sure, the maker of the tool should be nice and offer the ability to either turn off or uninstall the tool, and likewise should try to offer ways for content publishers to know that the tool is in use and decide how to handle that, but there’s nothing inherently evil about such tools being available to users!)


Do these people get righteous about Firefox extensions and how they can modify page content after it’s downloaded?

I didn’t think so.

• Posted by: Bill Brown on Feb 17, 2005, 8:42 PM

Google Autolinks:
No, it isn’t the same thing as auto-highlighting. It isn’t even CLOSE to that. What it IS, is a parsing program which takes content from an author and creates from it, links to “sponsored” material which may (or may NOT) be relevant to the author’s original material or intent. What is IS, is no different than you going out and photocopying someone’s book, making edits to that book, and then passing out the modified copy to all your friends, AS IF it were content from the original source. Recognizing a FEDX tracking number within a web-based document, and linking the number to the FEDX tracking website is certainly ONE possibile implementation of this technology, but it certainly isn’t the ONLY possibility. What it IS, is a direct violation of the owners copyright to his/her own material and a violation of the owner’s right to control his/her own material. This is not parsing a document, looking for keywords (that the AUTHOR provided), and ranking those results within a search engine, and linking the user to the ORIGINAL document without modification. Google’s new Autolink program, ADDs references to that original material. Google neither consults with the author of the original material, nor is the author compensated for providing the very reference WORDs that Google uses to generate this new income. What it IS, is Google getting paid to superimpose links/references to someone else’s material or website, using YOUR content (free of charge) to do it. And Yes, I have tried it (the new toolbar), and on the surface, it looks harmless enough, but when you dig a little deeper, (expand your greedy little mind) you’ll quickly discover the dark side. Lurking there, is the very same animal that had Microsoft drooling, when they tried to employ SmartLinks a few years back. Now, don’t get me wrong. I love Google. I’ve been using their toolbars since they were first introduced. I have Google as my browser start page, and I use it almost exclusively for searching. I have Gmail, and many customer/clients who have contracts with Google for word ranking. I have no problem with Google making money by advertising and selling keywords, and providing “sponsored” links to those who have the money to pay for them. What I don’t like, is having Google (or anyone else) hijack MY copyrighted content. When a user searches for a word IN MY DOCUMENT, I have no problem is they want to use a tool to help HIGHLIGHT that word IN MY DOCUMENT. That doesn’t change the intent or meaning, or does it infer any other (external) references, unless I CHOOSE to place such a reference as a hypertext link. What Google Autolinks does, goes far beyond highlighting MY WORDS. Autolinks ADDS LINKS to MY WORDS that direct viewers to something else. I could care less if that “something else” is a FedX Tracking number or a global satellite map of my street. The point is, Google doesn’t have a COPYRIGHT to MY document — they don’t have MY PERMISSION to ADD ANYTHING! I believe some people have forgotten the meaning Copyright, or the term ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. Those are not just cute catchphrases. They represent legal principles, designed to protect the authors from someone else tying to make a buck at their expense. In principle, this is no different than making an illegal copy of a DVD. I don’t know what you want to call it, but I’ll tell you this, If I want a link to FEDX on my website, I’ll damn well put it there myself!

• Posted by: gm on Feb 18, 2005, 4:33 PM

Bill, Bill… I can stick the new Green Day CD in my burner, and crank out 5000 copies — I have the technology to do it — but it’s ILLEGAL. The fact that individuals (or Mother Corporations) can make changes to web content once it has been downloaded, doesn’t mean that they might not be violating Copyright Law in doing so! I feel quite certain, that if you were running a business selling what-nots, and one of your competitors paid Google to have link inserted over YOUR WORDS, that linked your website visitors to their site, you’d be pretty pissed! And you’d have every right to be…

• Posted by: gm on Feb 18, 2005, 4:54 PM

Wow, gm, I’m sorry but I don’t think you understand how AutoLink works. (I’m curious about you saying that you’ve installed it, since you don’t seem to have used AutoLink whatsoever; your characterization of it strikes me as akin to saying that I’ve run Microsoft Word, and I don’t like the way it lays out the solitaire cards.) I want to make one point clear, lest your comment sway anyone’s opinion who hasn’t installed the Toolbar beta yet: AutoLink makes no changes to the displayed web page unless the user of the toolbar clicks on the AutoLink button. So to use your own analogy, it’s as if a reader takes a book chapter and adds an annotation next to a paragraph, saying “this idea is also discussed by James Smith in Treatise On A Great Idea.” That’s it. Nobody else’s experience of their own copies of the book chapter changes as a result of that annotation; similarly, nobody’s experience but the specific user’s changes as a result of that user clicking on AutoLink. Similarly, you say that it’s OK for a toolbar to highlight words in your documents because the users ask for it, but five sentences later, say that Google doesn’t have the right to do ANYTHING to your document. You can’t have it both ways.

I’d also recommend that you do some reading about copyright; your notions of what it protects and doesn’t protect seem to be a bit misinformed. I don’t mean for that to sound pejorative — it isn’t, it’s just that you seem to feel that the rules of copyright change my ability, as an end user, to change the rendering of a web page in ways that make my web browsing experience more useful, and they do no such thing.

And lastly, I make it clear that rude comments (“greedy little mind”) aren’t going to be tolerated here; be civil, and it’ll be much more useful to everyone who meanders by.

• Posted by: Jason on Feb 18, 2005, 7:40 PM

“AutoLink makes no changes to the displayed web page unless the user of the toolbar clicks on the AutoLink button.”

I don’t see why the user-initiated nature of the linking matters. Why does Google have the right to create a derivative work of my copyrighted Web page that adds links to the text, whether Google software initiates this change or a user does?

At first glance, I’d say this sounds a lot like framing someone else’s Web content and presenting it with advertising, which is illegal.

• Posted by: Rogers Cadenhead on Feb 19, 2005, 2:30 PM

Ummm —- Roger, the company isn’t doing it, the USER is doing it. Same as when the user chooses to install a popup blocker (blocking windows from popping up that publishers have chosen to include), change a user stylesheet (making various bits of content display differently that the publisher intended), or click the “highlight search terms” button of any of the search toolbars (provide semantic information about the page).

If anything’s creating a derivative work, it’s the web browser itself — the work is being replicated right there on your monitor for you by a user agent. Of course, it’s that user agent’s JOB to create that derivative work on your screen, and the user can choose how it does so via a variety of options. Some of those options are built into the browser (hide all images, change font size, set user stylesheet), and others are add-ons via extensions, toolbars, and the like.

• Posted by: Jason on Feb 19, 2005, 4:42 PM

I think there’s a difference between presentational changes such as font sizes and a change that alters the actual content of a page.

I publish hundreds of pages on which I link to my books on Amazon.Com. I derive significant income from those links. Without them, I might not be able to publish my support sites for my books.

Under copyright law, how does Google get the right to present my page with those links altered so that I don’t earn affiliate fees? If you’re putting this on users because they clicked a button, how does a user get the right to push a button that alters all of my links?

I’d think they have to present my content or not present it. By your logic, Firefox could add a user-activated feature that alters all affiliate links it recognizes to insert a Mozilla Foundation affiliate code in place of the existing code.

Talking out my ass here, but I have trouble believing that a court would support that behavior.

• Posted by: Rogers Cadenhead on Feb 19, 2005, 6:21 PM

I would contend that the people at Mozilla could do that so long as they made users overtly and consciously agree to accept that behavior (mind you, not that they should!). But more germaine to the point, a developer could certainly release an extension to Mozilla to do that; there are a ton of other extensions that do similar things (like add Wikipedia links to all proper nouns, or add thumbnails to any search result page that include product affiliate links for the plugin author, for example).

And how does a user not have the right to do whatever they want with the page that’s downloaded by their browser, so long as they don’t republish it? (To use the example I used before, choosing to not display any images is clearly altering content. Why is that OK? Almost every browser offers you that option right out of the box.) Likewise, I could certainly take a title you recommend, go over to Barnes and Noble, type it in and buy it; why shouldn’t I be allowed to write a bookmarklet that gives me links to Barnes and Noble to buy any book that your page mentions? Why shouldn’t a third-party developer write that functionality for me?

• Posted by: Jason on Feb 19, 2005, 11:35 PM

I publish thousands of papers on which I give my thoughts on important issues. I derive significant income from those papers.

Under copyright law, how does Crayola get the right to present my papers with their text altered so that my poor punctuation and spelling is circled? If you’re putting this on users because they went through and circled my spelling mistakes, how did the user get the right to use a crayon?

I think they’d have to read my paper or not read it. By your logic, anyone could go around writing all over the stuff in their house! They could even use markers on the walls!

Talking out of my ass here, but I have trouble believing a court would support that behavior.

• Posted by: Aaron Swartz on Feb 20, 2005, 3:38 PM

Mimicry and disrespect aren’t very persuasive rhetorical techniques, Aaron.

I think it’s specious to argue that users are making these edits. Google decides what to alter on the pages and how to alter them. Google’s creating the derivative work.

• Posted by: Rogers Cadenhead on Feb 20, 2005, 3:48 PM

Mimicry, maybe, but I don’t know if he’s disrespecting you so much as paralleling your argument with one that’s so obviously flawed that it sheds light on your own.

And to continue in that light, Crayola isn’t responsible for modifications because they decide on the colors of crayons they’ll produce. And extending the argument into a world that’s actually relevant in a similar manner, Apple isn’t responsible for musical derivative works because the company chose which loops and riffs to include with GarageBand. In both instances, and with the Google Toolbar, there’s a user that chose the product and initiated a use of it.

• Posted by: Jason on Feb 20, 2005, 4:11 PM

And Roger, I wasn’t being pedantic, I’m actually curious about the perspective of those who don’t like AutoLink on how a user choosing to turn off the display of web page images is any different than that same user choosing to mark up semantic information like tracking numbers and VINs. Same thing with popups — how is blocking them a more acceptable form of changing the raw HTML that’s sent than is further marking that HTML up? Care to weigh in, if not for the entire class of users, then at least with your own perspective?

(I specifically am asking because you say that browsers should either present your content as-is or not present it at all, which seems very cut-and-dry, and at odds with a lot of accepted features of web browsers.)

• Posted by: Jason on Feb 20, 2005, 4:17 PM

Jason’s right; I mean no disrespect, I just have an irrational love for the reductio ad absurdum.

So if the key difference is that Google gets to decide how the page is modified, then what about a rubber stamp? The user has no control over the content of the rubber stamp. They can only buy rubber stamps and apply them to documents. Do you think a rubber stamp that said “Learn more or buy this book from 1-800-AMAZON” should also be banned?

The legal issues are probably pretty much the same as those in Huntsman v. Soderbergh (the CleanFlicks case). I don’t believe the Court has ruled yet, but their legal arguments don’t seem very convincing.

• Posted by: Aaron Swartz on Feb 20, 2005, 4:31 PM

I discuss some of those issues here. The biggest differences between this and pop-up or image blocking: the edits are subtle, most users will not be clear on who authored links after AutoLink is pressed, and Google’s making money off the changes (or presumably will be, or else why do it?).

I’ve been looking for stories related to bowdlerization services like CleanFlicks, because as I recall one of them was working on a VCR that could take a list of edits from disk, apply them to a specific film, and produce a “clean” version of that film as output.

Would you argue that such a device would be fair use? It sounds to me that the author of the derivative work is the device’s creator, not the user whose entire contribution consisted of clicking a button.

• Posted by: Rogers Cadenhead on Feb 20, 2005, 4:45 PM

Reading your linked page, Rogers, I simply cannot believe that anyone, much less you (a person who’s authored many the intelligent work and comment) could argue that the user won’t be clear or responsible for what happens when they click on a button that explicitly says that it adds semantic links (and then styles all such links in a way that makes their authorship incontrovertible).

And are we really not willing to give users the responsibility of knowing what happens when they use the options of tools that they install? It’s shocking that somehow there are people that percieve this as not at all within the realm of user responsibility; it’s like saying that cars shouldn’t have a reverse gear, because users might not use it responsibly.

And coming at it from a different direction: if a user has browser display of images turned off, do they know whether an imageless web page they’re looking at was authored that way or whether it was rendered that way by their browser? It doesn’t really matter — because by enabling the option, they’ve taken responsibility for the ultimate rendering of the page.

Lastly, can you acknowledge that most of the arguments that you’re proffering are theoretical? Google isn’t rewriting already-linked text — your ISBN numbers linked however you want them to aren’t getting rewritten at all — and Google also isn’t linking to anything that earns them a lick of money. Is that true?

• Posted by: Jason on Feb 20, 2005, 5:05 PM

It isn’t very clear as implemented in the beta: the button label “Show Book Info” does not identify the fact that the page will be edited, and a tooltip is only evident if you hover over a link.

I demonstrated on my weblog that in practice, Google isn’t affecting my book links — the beta leaves linked ISBNs alone. However, look at my Bookpool example for a problem that isn’t theoretical — online retailers will vociferously oppose the addition of links to other retailers on their own sites.

If you conclude that inline alterations of Web page links by browsing software are fair use, the bigger issue isn’t what “don’t be evil” Google is doing at the moment. Maybe they’ll stick to this user-initiated, one page at a time rule, even though it makes the feature mostly useless.

I’m more dubious about what the Google Toolbar and other software could do with that capability. If I can block all pop-ups with a single configuration setting, and this is fair use, I can turn autolinks on for all pages. (A toolbar maker could probably generate a sustainable stream of revenue by automatically editing all affiliate links it recognizes, taking money right out of the hands of Web publishers.)

I know you think critics are being alarmist, but the time to hash out pessimistic scenarios is when this toolbar’s in beta and the tech news sites are just starting to take note of autolink.

• Posted by: Rogers Cadenhead on Feb 20, 2005, 5:39 PM

By “produce a clean version of the film as output”, I assume you mean that it made a copy of the DVD without the naughty bits? If that had problems, I presume they would be because it copied a DVD, not because it copied it imperfectly.

The question is not about who authored the derivative work. The question is not about whether I can make copies of things. The question is about my right to use stuff I own to do stuff to other stuff I own.

• Posted by: Aaron Swartz on Feb 20, 2005, 5:40 PM

That seems like a dodge to me. This is about the right to copy something and make derivative works from it. You have the right to edit one of my Web pages for private, personal use. No one is challenging that. You can even write your own software to do it and run that program privately.

I don’t see how Google has the right to offer software that edits my Web page to add new hyperlinks to my text.

• Posted by: Rogers Cadenhead on Feb 20, 2005, 5:54 PM

What is the relevant difference between me running my software to edit your webpage and me running someone else’s software to edit your webpage?

I’m not trying to be obtuse, I honestly don’t get it.

• Posted by: AaronSw [TypeKey Profile Page] on Feb 20, 2005, 6:01 PM

The difference, as I see it: Someone Else doesn’t have the right to edit my Web page for your use, because that’s no longer private and personal.

• Posted by: Rogers Cadenhead on Feb 20, 2005, 6:06 PM

Rogers, that means that now the argument is that it’s OK for an individual to write a tool to perform a function, but illegal/unethical for a toolmaker to write that same tool, offer it to a user, and have the user activate the function.

And I remind you that nobody had any problem with Google offering this exact same type of functionality with the “highlight search terms” button — a button that implements a function which similarly makes a change to your web page in a user’s browser.

• Posted by: Jason on Feb 20, 2005, 6:21 PM

First let me say that I’m a long time Google fan, I publish adsense and spend a lot of money with adwords. But this has made me Very Mad. Google is going to take my copyright material, change it, and then publish it for their own gain.

The only reason I won’t be suing Google over this is because I know it will be much more cost effective to find some way to disable the feature. I might have to put links on all the addresses on my sites to prevent google linking them to some competitor.

To those who argue that this is the legal equivalent of someone marking up the content themselves I say this. An individual person can mark up my copyright material how they like, as long as they do not republish. But a corporation that does this many times, for their commercial gain, has certainly violated my copyright.

Finally, Google is violating a law in my country which says that you may not “pass off” your content as if you were me. That is, you may not look like you’re coke, with a red bottle and the coke logo. Nor may you take a coke bottle and add any material that might *look like* it was put their by coke. Australian trade practices law is quite clear on this. I expect there is similar law in most jurisdictions.

• Posted by: Davros on Feb 22, 2005, 6:32 AM

Craig, two questions:

1. How is Google republishing your work? That is, how is the copy of a web page you authored on which I invoke AutoLink changing any other user’s experience of that same web page in their own browser?

2. Does Australia allow individual users to modify their own copies of books, magazines, and the like with annotation and markup?

• Posted by: Jason on Feb 22, 2005, 8:25 AM


3. If you link every address to a mapping site, any mapping site, won’t you not only have “blocked” them by taking away the user’s need to use a third party linking service, but also have made the web a better place? They’re a crafty lot, those Googlers.

• Posted by: Phil Ringnalda on Feb 22, 2005, 6:39 PM
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