Google’s AutoLink tool

Google’s AutoLink tool has been in the news. AutoLink picks certain words on a web publisher’s page and turns those into hyperlinks of Google’s choosing.

I’m struck by how often this idea has come up. I remember a client pitching this idea to me back in 1998. Then, there are tools like IntelliTxt, which has run trials (with permission) on sites like Forbes.com. And, of course, who can forget Microsoft’s Smart Tags?

From a legal standpoint, AutoLink looks questionable. The tool modifies publisher’s web pages by adding hypertext links without the publisher’s consent. While this modification isn’t a huge change, I could still see some (many?) courts treating them as unauthorized derivative works. Honestly, it seems like a fairly routine copyright infringement. Google appears to be trying to position this as a situation where it’s merely acting as an agent for user instructions, but I’ve just recently blogged on how courts frequently slice through that argument pretty quickly.

More interesting to me is that the idea of using web words as search terms seems to keep coming up, for what is likely a very good reason—because consumers find these links valuable. Though we can’t ignore the copyrights of web publishers, I’m also troubled that copyright law might stand in the way of tools that consumers might find valuable and might expressly choose to use for themselves.

UPDATE:

I have expanded my discussion about copyright infringement here.

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