As Google has grown into the world’s most popular search engine and, arguably, the most powerful Internet company, it has become entangled in scores of lawsuits touching on a wide range of legal questions, including copyright violation, trademark infringement and its method of ranking Web sites.
Any company that is large and successful is going to attract lawsuits, and Google’s deep pockets make it an especially big target. But as it rushes to create innovative new services, Google sometimes operates in a way that almost seems to invite legal scrutiny.
A group of authors and publishers is challenging the company’s right to scan books that are still under copyright. A small Web site in California is suing Google because it was removed from the company’s search results. And European news agencies have sued over Google’s use of their headlines and photos in Google News.
In these cases and others, potential legal problems seem to give the company little pause before it plunges into new ventures.
“I think Google is wanting to push the boundaries,” said Jonathan Zittrain, professor of Internet governance and regulation at Oxford University.
“The Internet ethos of the 90’s, the expansionist ethos, was, ‘Just do it, make it cool, make it great and we’ll cut the rough edges off later,’ ” Professor Zittrain said. “They’re really trying to preserve a culture that says, ‘Just do it, and consult with the lawyers as you go so you don’t do anything flagrantly ill-advised.’ ”
Now, with its planned $1.65 billion acquisition of the video site YouTube, which contains not just homemade videos but also copyrighted clips that users upload without permission, some observers say Google is exposing itself to a new spate of lawsuits.
The company’s legal department has grown from one lawyer in 2001 to nearly 100 lawyers now, not just at its headquarters in Mountain View, Calif., but also overseas. The company has also retained counsel at many outside law firms.