Commentary

Movie Studios Claim Right To Enlist Attorneys General Against Google

Late last year, documents leaked in the Sony hack revealed that Hollywood officials had secretly launched “Project Goliath” -- an initiative that aimed to convince state attorneys general to target Google for allegedly enabling piracy.

Days after those documents surfaced, Google sued Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood -- one of the state law enforcement officials who reportedly cooperated with the motion picture industry. The company said that Hood had spent the better part of two years demanding information related to outside companies -- including operators of sites indexed by Google -- that allegedly play a role in copyright infringement.

Google argued that Hood lacked authority to target Google for linking to sites that allegedly infringe copyright, because state attorneys general lack jurisdiction over copyright matters. The company also said that federal law immunizes Web companies from liability for wrongdoing by third parties.

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In March, U.S. District Court Judge Henry Wingate in Mississippi sided with Google and issued a preliminary order blocking Hood from continuing with the investigation. Hood is now appealing that order to the 5th Circuit.

Wingate also said that Google could obtain information that would be relevant to the company's request for a final order in the case. To that end, Google is seeking to subpoena a host of documents from the entertainment industry, including emails, drafts of legal papers and other correspondence between industry representatives and various law enforcement officials.

This week the studios opposed the request, arguing that it would “chill” their right to seek assistance from the government.

“With respect to piracy ... content owners send Google millions of takedown requests each month asking Google to remove links to infringing content from its search engine,” NBC Universal, Fox and Viacom say in papers filed this week in federal court in Manhattan. The studios add that they “also have exercised their rights to petition government officials regarding Google’s role in facilitating and profiting from the piracy of their content.”

“While Google paints itself as the victim of these efforts, the opposite is true,” they say. “Through its unnecessary and overbroad third-party subpoenas ... Google has acted as the aggressor, seeking to embroil the subpoenaed parties in its lawsuit against Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood.”

Viacom, Fox and NBC Universal also say that any behind-the-scenes discussions between the industry and law enforcement isn't relevant to the legal question -- which turns on whether a state attorney general has the authority to investigate a Web company for the conduct of its users.

“Citizens have been communicating with government officials since the dawn of the Republic, yet Google identifies no case ever in which a court has directed production of -- or even relied on -- private citizens’ documents to establish the motives of government officials,” the studios argue.

The Motion Picture Association of American also is opposing Google's effort to subpoena documents, arguing that the company's demands are too broad. That organization says that Google is seeking “tens of thousands of highly confidential documents” that Hood never saw.

“This court should reject Google’s attempt ... to obtain irrelevant documents from those who seek the assistance of law enforcement officials, or to otherwise pursue its real objective here -- to intimidate the MPAA and other victims of Google’s unlawful conduct from ever seeking the assistance of state law enforcement officials.”

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