Copying is not always a crime; mostly, it's the halfway point on the road to innovation.
Google last week took the unusual step of accusing Microsoft's Bing search engine of copying its search results, a charge that Microsoft flatly denied.
The debate continued throughout the week. If you're not going to read Danny Sullivan's thoughtful analysis of the dust-up, then let it suffice to say that the debate went something like this: Yes, you did! No we didn't!
Google says that it noticed its search results for obscure keywords turning up in Bing searches for those terms. The implication is that Bing is simply stealing Google results. But Microsoft denies this, noting that the similarity between obscure searches on Google and Bing is the product of monitoring users' clickstreams. Yusuf Mehdi, SVP of Microsoft's online services division, went so far as to declare the experiment Google used to "prove" that copying had taken place was in fact a form of click fraud.
It's tempting to delve into the subtlety here. Google's evidence is compelling, but so is Microsoft's explanation. The proper way to proceed would be for both companies to monitor users less, but that would lead to less relevant search results for everyone. It might be a price worth paying, if only to encourage Google and Microsoft to focus on larger problems like Web spam.
But there's a more interesting level of absurdity that has yet to be fully explored. Google is accusing Microsoft of doing what every company in the tech industry has been doing forever: copying.
Copying is the lifeblood of technological progress, not to mention human social development. It's integral to computer architecture and to computer networking. Web browsers and Web servers copy Web pages, though the operation is called caching, as if it were somehow sordid to be caught copying.
Programmers copy blocks of code all the time. In their programs, they use statements like "include" or "require," which are really just alternate spellings of "copy" in the context of importing existing code libraries. Sometimes they're expected to rewrite code in a way that doesn't look like a copy, even if the code ends up being functionally equivalent. But such activity is still, at its heart, copying.
Google itself is an empire built on copying. It presents search results copied from all the Web sites it indexes (another euphemism for copying). It presents headlines copied from news sites through Google News. It has scanned (copied) millions of books for its book search service. Search for "U2" and you can play audio files copied from the band's commercially released songs. YouTube distributes copies of various video clips and commercial films, much to the consternation of Viacom.
Microsoft copies too. Ever wonder where the idea for a graphic user interface for Windows came from? Ask Steve Jobs at Apple. Of course, he'd then refer you to Xerox PARC. And if if you kept pulling at that thread, you'd find a lot more copying. There'd be some innovation, to be sure, but true breakthroughs without precedent are the exception rather than the rule. Isaac Newton's oft-repeated (copied) acknowledgement that creativity has roots in the past -- If I have seen further it is only by standing on the shoulders of giants -- says a lot about the importance of copying.
Copying is accepted, if uncomfortably, in fashion and cooking. In jazz, musicians often copy famous licks and combine them to make something new. In writing, you can copy, but only with attribution. At some point, copying becomes the crime of copyright infringement, though it's not always easy to tell when the line has been crossed. That's because it's an arbitrary, unnatural line.
Copying is the way of the world. The Romans copied from the ancient Greeks and other cultures copied from the Romans. History has proceeded thus, with small improvements here and there, to where we are today, with China copying from the U.S. Tomorrow, someone will be copying from China.
We may not always be happy to be copied, because our concepts of ownership and value depend upon limiting copies. But copying is the sincerest from of commerce.
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