The Computer & Communications Industry Association has released a paper that aims to refute the RIAA’s arguments that search engines play a major role in music piracy. “The Search Fixation: Infringement, Search Results and Online Content,” written by the CCIA VP of law and policy Matt Schruers.
Put another way, a non-profit backed by Google and a number of other technology companies disagrees with the claims of a record label-backed trade organization on search engines’ role in driving traffic to illegal music sites. No surprise there.
The impetus for the paper was a report released in February by the RIAA. That report examined the impact in Google’s decision to punish sites’ search ranks based on the number of removal requests sent by rights owners. The RIAA found the sites most often cited in removal requests “do not appear to have been demoted by Google’s demotion signal in any meaningful way.”
At issue here is an enormous number of rogue sites that are indexed by Google and other search engines. The RIAA has filed 7,770 requests involving 27.4 million individual URLs in the last month alone. During that time, the BPI has filed 34,200 requests involving 24 million URLs.
“The Search Fixation” doesn’t exactly prove search engines are not an important factor in music piracy. Instead, the report shows that search engines are not the biggest driver of traffic to pirate sites.
For example, the paper observes that Internet searches for artist names far outnumber searches for specific song titles. Thus, searches for Rihanna are far more frequent than searches for her song “Diamonds,” both with and without the extra terms “MP3” and “download.”
Google Trends shows the disparity in the terms used in the report. At its peak, search frequency for “Diamonds” was just 23% of searches for “Rihanna.” Searches for “download” and “MP3” were outnumbered 75-to-2 and 75-to-1, respectively.
But wouldn’t searches for a single song be outnumbered by searches for the performing artist? One thing the report failed the note is that “Diamonds” was the first of four singles from Rihanna’s 14-track album “Unapologetic.” Downloads of later singles were also sought via search engines. Internet users searched for album tracks, too, but with less frequency than singles.
In any case, the RIAA believe the report is basically in line with its earlier findings. “Every day, there are millions of popular searches, using the basic terms cited in our analysis, that produce results prominently featuring rogue websites that have received millions of piracy notices,” the organization said in a statement.
Exactly how much traffic to illegal websites is driven search drive is debatable. Techdirt, cited in the CCIA report, says about 15% of traffic to the MPAA’s list of a couple dozen rogue sites came from search. The RIAA says each of the two “worst of the worst” sites in its report — mp3skull.com and mp3juices.com — get “over 25% of their traffic” from search, and most from Google.
Here’s where the debate splits along party lines. Rights owners naturally want to address anything that drives up to a quarter of traffic to rogue sites. Critics counter that while search contributes traffic to rogue sites, it isn’t the biggest driver. They’re both right. Search is only one path people take to illegally obtain music.
How best to tackle this particular problem? The CCIA — its other backers include Pandora, Microsoft and Facebook — concludes that efforts to remove unlawful sites from search results “are unlikely to mitigate online infringement.” Instead, the report argues that labels and artists should use search optimization to “promote the page rank of lawful sites and increase the visibility of legitimate online content offerings.” In other words, the CCIA would prefer carrots to sticks.
There’s actually some common ground here. In its statement, the RIAA said it believes “the best approach is a multi-faceted one” that involves “aggressive marketing” of legal services as well as limiting access to rogue sites. The CCIA would prefer carrots, but the RIAA wants both carrots and sticks.