Google's Copyright Crackdown Punishes Author For Torrenting His Own Book

from the too-aggressive dept

Over the years, we’ve pointed out repeatedly a massive Achilles Heel for Google: its often dreadful customer service. Trying to communicate with Google can often be like facing a giant white monolith, rather than any sort of human being. More recently, we’ve been concerned about Google’s willingness to be overly aggressive in “enforcing” copyright, in an effort to keep Hollywood (and Hollywood’s supporters in government) off its back. Combine those two issues, and you’ve got quite a story… such as the one from Techdirt reader Cody Jackson.

A few years ago, Jackson, while deployed in Iraq, wrote a book about Python (the programming language) called Start Programming with Python. He decided to give away the book for free, as a “thank you” to the open source community which, he notes, has provided him with tremendous value over the years. He has always made the book available for free, and linked to various sources where you can get it. At the same time, he’s offered people the option to support him via donation. He also made a little bit of money via Google AdSense ads on his site.

Last week, he was contacted by a Google bot, telling him that AdSense had been disabled. Why? Because they claimed he was distributing copyrighted content illegally. The email, which I’ve seen, notes that his account has been disabled for the following reason:

Violation explanation

COPYRIGHTED MATERIAL: As stated in our program policies, AdSense publishers are not permitted to place Google ads on sites involved in the distribution of copyrighted materials. This includes hosting copyrighted files on your site, as well as providing links for or driving traffic to sites that contain copyrighted material. More information about this policy can be found in our help center ( ).

To be honest, Google’s terms here make no sense. Basically EVERY website “contains copyrighted material.” Based on what Google sent to Jackson, no one could link to any website if they wanted to run AdSense. Google has a number of really good copyright lawyers, but they must have let this one slip by. I’m sure Google means “unauthorized” or “infringing” copyrighted material, but that’s not what it says.

Either way, it seems ridiculous and serious overkill to suggest that any links to a site that carries infringing content — even if the link is to legitimate content — should be deemed a terms of service violation. The email provides one link as an “example page” of the kind of problems they’re talking about. That page is the one where Jackson announces that he’s put up a torrent of the 2nd edition of his book, and points people to The Pirate Bay and Demonoid to get it. Remember, this is his own book, which he’s published himself and is giving away for free… on purpose.

You could argue that Google’s terms here are overbroad and perhaps they’re within those rules. But saying that you can’t link to legitimate content that you yourself released on the Pirate Bay could have a real chilling effect for those who choose to put their own works on such sites.

Jackson reached out to Google for more information, explaining to them the situation, pointing out that he’s the author and publisher, and that the work is published under a Creative Commons BY-SA license, and thus all copies on The Pirate Bay are perfectly legal and authorized. Google told him it would review the account… and then sent the following:

Thank you for providing us with additional information about your site. However, after thoroughly reviewing and taking your feedback into consideration, we’re unable to re-enable ad serving to your site at this time, as your site appears to still be in violation.

If you’d like to have your site reconsidered for participation in the AdSense program, please review our program policies ( and make any necessary changes to your webpages. For more information regarding your policy issue, please visit

Confused about this after reading through everything and still not seeing any violation, he removed the links to the torrent files, even though it made perfect sense to him to keep them up. As he noted to me via email: “The torrent was one of the first ways that I had made my book available, since that is where the technical people are likely to hang out. I figured a torrent file on the most popular torrent site was a no-brainer.”

So he, once again, responded to the Google bot, this time after removing the links… and he still got back the exact same message. The current post (and, again, this was a post that Google specifically called out as an “example” of a problem page) still mentions The Pirate Bay and Demonoid, but has no links (and even when it did have links, they were authorized!). And yet, Google’s AdSense team still insists that he’s violating AdSense’s inscrutable terms. They won’t explain why. They won’t seem to actually comprehend what he’s saying. They just block.

For what it’s worth, we hear from Google haters all the time that it somehow refuses to take down Ads on “pirate sites.” This experience seems to suggest the exact opposite: that Google is overly aggressive in trying to block ads showing up in any way, shape or form, near sites that it has deemed to be problematic, even if the content is 100% guaranteed legal and authorized. Combine that with Google’s horrendous customer service-by-bot, and you have an unfortunate situation where an author is being punished for doing something perfectly legal and can’t seem to find a human at Google who will actually take the time to understand what’s going on.

These are the reasons why we get so nervous when Google cranks up its “automation” at the insistence of Hollywood. The collateral damage is very real.

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Comments on “Google's Copyright Crackdown Punishes Author For Torrenting His Own Book”

Subscribe: RSS Leave a comment
Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

Our broken legal system is mostly to blame (ie: one sided penalty structure), it’s stacked in favor of IP extremists since they’re the ones that pay for campaign contributions and they’re the ones that provide revolving door favors. Our legal system encourages plutocracy and it encourages behavior that stifles competition and innovation in favor of campaign contributors and revolving door providers.

Anonymous Coward says:

Google are no different to the tossers in the entertainment industries. they know full well when things are legal and when they’re not, but because they chose to ignore people and because they think they are the dogs bollocks, they just carry on doing whatever the hell they like regardless. one day they are gonna go too far and get such a customer backlash, they wont recover from it

MrWilson says:

Re: Re:

You don’t seem to have much knowledge of Google’s activities. They have a mixed track record certainly, but they have been much more friendly regarding copyright issues than the entertainment industry. This is definitely a more severe example, but nowhere near a harbinger of the end of their business. Their stock recently hit a record high and they’ve built up so much goodwill (and power) amongst customers and companies, that it’ll be a long long while or else a significant disaster before Google is brought down. And I doubt it will be a customer service issue that does it unless management changes significantly.

Haywood (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

I suspect it might just be the tip of the iceberg. The decision to discontinue IGoogle, is pissing me off considerably. Their logic that smart phones cover that base, hardly matters to desktop computer users. It is their ball, and if they want to take it and go home, so be it, but if a new kid shows up with a new ball, don’t be surprised if the kids go to play with them from now on.

MrWilson says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

I agree that getting rid of iGoogle was a bad idea. I thought the explanation was that they were moving towards browser specific homepage setups with Chrome rather than Google account specific setups that aren’t browser specific. It seems silly to take something out of the cloud just because you want to push your browser (which doesn’t work well with the software I have to support at work).

VidExplorer (user link) says:

Re: the all torrent is evil position

What Anonymous Coward said. Hollywood argues that torrent / file sharing is inherently bad. They have someone strong armed others into the same ludicrous logic. Copyright violation occurs on torrent sites; therefore, all activity on a torrent site is illegal. Tough a torrent site and you open yourself up for punishment in their view. Very sad to hear Google has adopted this policy if the report in this article is true.

Mr Claypole says:

Similar thing happened to me on my forum. My members were sharing their own creations, that they held copyright to, and were using rapidshare to distribute. I assumed it triggered some automated algorithm from the adsense bot.

After Google disabled ad serving, I responded and informed them that my members held the copyright to the work they were sharing and that I would not be removing anything whatsoever.

Ad serving was actually reinstated within 24 hours which was great, but the email I got back was frustrating – ‘Thank you for making the requested changes to your site in order to comply with our policies’. Seriously? I didn’t make any changes, would it hurt to admit they’d made a mistake? I also assume that my account remains ‘flagged’ as a previous violator, so I suspect if it happens again, that’s the end of Adsense.

Anyway, I seem to have faired better than the guy in the story, but it does send a chill. I’m now very twitchy about my members sharing via file sharing services, even though they own the copyright to everything they share.

MrWilson says:

Re: Re:

I am very interested in this unique information you share with us. Do you have a surveillance photo that you can post showing Mike taking money from Google? I bet it has a nice big blue, red, yellow, green Google logo on the side of the envelope, right? That’s probably how they do all their transactions.

Anyway, I’m eager awaiting your proof of these claims.

ltlw0lf (profile) says:

I hereby declare...

In order to protect TechDirt’s adSense revenue, I hereby declare that everything I post here, in the past, present, and future, is public domain and I reserve no copyrights to anything I post here. You are free to do anything you want with anything I post here, reprint, mash it up, use it to enlighten yourself or bash me on the head with it, I don’t care. Of course, I do not guarantee the merchantability of anything, and certainly won’t be responsible for your use of my material (if it causes you to go blind or suffer mental or physical effects as a result of using it.)

There, no problems with copyrighted material on my account.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: I hereby declare...

I hereby use the just granted public domain status to declare:

“In order to protect TechDirt’s adSense revenue, I hereby declare that everything I post here, in the past, present, and future, is public domain and I reserve no copyrights to anything I post here. You are free to do anything you want with anything I post here, reprint, mash it up, use it to enlighten yourself or bash me on the head with it, I don’t care. Of course, I do not guarantee the merchantability of anything, and certainly won’t be responsible for your use of my material (if it causes you to go blind or suffer mental or physical effects as a result of using it.)

There, no problems with copyrighted material on my account.”

See what I did there? ๐Ÿ™‚

Anonymous Coward says:

It appears that referring people to The Pirate Bay and Demonoid is considered “providing links for or driving traffic to sites that contain copyrighted material.”

My guess is that it’s because these are sites widely known for hosting links to infringing material. Sure he’s directing people to his own material, but he is “driving traffic” to “pirate” sites. Even though no infringing content is actually hosted by these sites, from the MAFIAA’s point of view, it’s the exact same thing.

My suggestion is to just host the torrent file itself, and avoid mentioning TPB.

ebilrawkscientist (profile) says:

Git with it!

I’d work around it, throw your own stuff up on your github and send tweets that link to it around the world … done.
That’ll also bring more peeps attention to your github “profile” where some of your code & works are in a word, showcased. ๐Ÿ™‚ Ya never know, it might lead to greater things down the road. ‘git ‘er done.

Len Feldman (profile) says:

Happened to my own site

Google Adsense did the same thing to both my blog and my videos on YouTube, for an almost identical reason, and then refused to change its decision when I showed them that I either owned the “objectionable” content or it was intended for public use. I believe that what’s really happening is that Google is trying to weed out low-traffic sites from Adsense, and is using copyright violations as the pretext to do so. That would explain why the company refused to reinstate Cody Jackson’s site when he removed his eBook from the torrent sites. They’re not really interested in the copyright violations–they just want to get his site out of Adsense.

Len Feldman (profile) says:

Re: Re: Happened to my own site

Google’s business WAS the long tail, but increasingly, it’s focusing on the 80:20 rule. For example, on YouTube, it’s shifting its focus from undifferentiated and hard-to-sell inventory on user-generated content to professionally-produced content that’s likely to generate both more views and higher advertising rates. If you don’t think that Google is doing very sophisticated return on investment calculations to optimize its inventory of Adsense sites, you don’t know Google.

streetlight (profile) says:

How about publishing as an Amazon's 99 cent books?

I’m not familiar with the Python programming book, but I’m assuming it’s an e-book. Anyway, Cody Jackson should look into publishing his book as a 99 cent Amazon e-book for Kindle. There are Kindle software applications for hardware other than Amazon’s Kindle devices that would allow the book to be read. It would then be free to Prime subscribers and 99 cents to others. I’m not sure what Amazon’s cut is, but probably less than Apple’s 30%. Although Cody wants the book to be free, 99 cents minus Amazon’s cut is pretty nearly free.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: How about publishing as an Amazon's 99 cent books?

The problem with that is it requires a credit card and account to purchase… people in 3rd world countries or younger kids might not get the chance to read it. When I was a kid I read every book on Basic I could get my hands on- and now I’ve got a computer science degree with a focus in programming. Free and accessible is a way to open doors to minds, and however small the fee might be, the requirements are an impediment to the process.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: How about publishing as an Amazon's 99 cent books?

Just a note on the cut, Amazon will take either a 65% cut or a 30+% cut depending on the royalty option you choose. The minimum price for the 30% cut (70% royalty option) wouldn’t allow the 99 cent price.

As you mention though, it’s not free… turns out he’s doing it that way as well as via torrents anyway!

Cody Jackson (profile) says:

Re: How about publishing as an Amazon's 99 cent books?

My book is available for sale in a wide variety of formats. However, as Mike mentioned in the article, I want to give back to the FOSS community so I also make my book available for free, either through direct downloads off my site or through the torrents.

That way, people who want to support me can buy the books or they can simply download a copy. If they really want to support me, they can buy multiple copies.

art guerrilla (profile) says:

Re: Re: How about publishing as an Amazon's 99 cent books?

good on you ! ! !
only goes to show the unfortunate truth of ‘no good deed goes unpunished’…

the point the author of the article made (was it mike ?) that it is nearly *impossible* to actually contact a humanoid at google is an issue that i find reprehensible…

there are FAR TOO MANY korporations who set up their systems to make it obvious they don’t want their customers to contact them; WHAT does that say about them, their products/service, and our society ? ? ?

it says NO ONE gives a shit: “we overcharge you, we don’t guarantee shit, we subject you to one-sided EULAs, now go the fuck away stupid customer”…
*THAT* is bidness in amerika…

art guerrilla
aka ann archy

Anonymous Coward says:

This is really not that hard to understand, if you slow down and think.

Google does not allow ads on sites that promote torrents, plain and simple. When the guy started linking to a torrent, he pretty much lost his right to use Google ads.

Rather than screaming censorship, perhaps you would consider that the guy just did something silly, by putting a link to pirate infrastructure on his site. He shouldn’t be surprised when companies don’t to deal with him.

His free epech is not censored or curtailed. He is just having to make a business choice, no different from companies that choose not to advertise on Rush Limbaugh’s program. Stop trying to hold Google to a higher standard.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

Oh, but it is. The problem is that legal users don’t separate themselves from the pirates, so you end up lumped in the same pile.

It’s like having a legit business, say a bar, but you let a couple of guys sell crack out of the back and run underage hookers for cash. The problem is, once people catch on to that, they will assume that is all you do.

Torrents are pretty much the other way. Your in a crack den, with a bunch of pimps pushing underage girls, and you are trying to sell beer. Don’t be shocked when people don’t think you are legit.

“Are you saying that if every single torrent on TPB was not infringing that it would still be a pirate site?”

Since that isn’t possible, why even ask? If there were no pirate torrents, it wouldn’t be TPB… it would be “empty website” because nobody would go there.

Martin (user link) says:

Yeah, Similar problems

My site got knocked for invalid clicks and my appeal got denied(i’m really low traffic so no real surprise there). I really broke any trust I had for google and their poor customer service, in my eyes, goes against their company policy of putting users first. You can argue that we’re business clients publishing sites and whatnot, but when it comes down to we are a user of google technology in which case it’s pretty dick. So far Valve is the only company that hasn’t hurt me yet…

Frank says:

The problem, as you’ve said, is customer-service-by-bot!

Unfortunately, many big companies seem to do that to a greater or lesser extent.

Probably Google needs to either…

– Hire a few hundred (maybe a few thousand) customer service people. This won’t come cheap, because they will need to be reasonably smart. Otherwise there’ll be no significant improvement over the bot.

– Hire a few dozen people and make the bot smart enough to guess (at least part of the time) when it’s out of its depth, so it can refer those cases to a human.

– Make a *really* smart bot. (ETA: Not for a few decades, yet.)

– Live with a small percentage of disgruntled customers, like they have for years.

Which do you think is likely?

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Google Ads are back on my site

It is interesting to me how “a little media attention” does seem to be the only way to get a huge corporation’s attention and a fix to a problem. It makes good fiscal sense: it’s cheaper than hiring a team of actual human beings to provide good customer service for all and if only the squeaky wheels among your customers get the grease (and therefore stop agitating and presenting a PR problem), who cares? From a corporation’s perspective, if the Silent Majority won’t get off its ass to demand fair treatment, why bother helping them out, thus costing the corporation money? If the customers you’ve screwed over remain silent, no worries on the PR front.

It’s proof that the internet has made our world very small again, because it seems to be a throw-back to an age where we lived in small communities and societal “shaming” was an effective tool to prompt good behavior.

Anonymous Coward says:

That's great for him

But that doesn’t stop the underlying issue of Google and Customer Support. I’m in the exact same position he is, I’ve tried contacting Google Adsense Support to have my site unblocked from adsense for having “excessive curse words” on a forum thread. I deleted the thread, and have been waiting three months for a response, finally got one today, and it said my account was disabled and wouldn’t be reinstated when it clearly wasn’t, it was a site violation and not an account violation.

Anonymous Coward says:

Oops, mistake above, clicked on the wrong place. Here’s my real comment:

Only one thing gets a response from a real, live, breathing person at Google, eBay, PayPal, or any of these other companies that base their business model on computerized interaction with the consuming public, and the smallest number of human employees possible:

A summons.

A flurry of activity and letters from live lawyerly types starts when they get a letter about a lawsuit.

Just Google ๐Ÿ™‚ Paul Bezaire’s story of the fun & games he had when he filed a small claims case against PayPal after months of being unable to reach a person and having nothing done about a fraud case.

Bradley Furnish (user link) says:

Facing a Similar Rejection with No Recourse

I am going through this excruciating process right now. I’ve tried to get AdSense enabled on, a site for finding legal video content. They’ve run their bots on the site twice and rejected it for copyrighted material. No context, no reasoning provided. All of the content is provided via publicly licensed APIs, but because we’re focused on streaming movies and tv shows the bots just assume that the content must be illegal.

I could accept that bug in the logic, except there is no way to appeal to a human being at AdSense. Just like the OP, I have no way to restore my account, submit a support ticket, or talk to a real person. The only way to appeal is to submit your site to the bots again.

I’ve gone to their forums only to receive a response from the Google representatives that basically says, “Yeah, we see sites mis-flagged all the time. We don’t have to partner with every site. Deal with it.” That’s not okay, especially if these bots are the same ones that are cataloging online information for most of the world.

Scott (profile) says:

Re: Facing a Similar Rejection with No Recourse

I having similar problem with Youtube,I had an account terminated 2 years for false community guideline strikes that I cause much of ruckus that you strikes an appeal them. But the videos in question were just mirrors of other people’s video that I subscribe to the wanted their videos mirrored due to being removed falsely.

Richard Senecal (user link) says:

They treated me the same

Well, this is not a unusual story. I’m a Haitian independent filmmaker with over 20-year worth of all kind of film and video works. Three years ago I started a website to let people freely stream some of my own archives (films I made and own) while monetizing with advertisement.
I was just banned from the Adsense program for copyright infringement of my own work. I guess unless you post amateurish videos you are at risk for this kind of thing. I tried an appeal after removing some stuff that might look suspicious to their eyes (although perfectly legitimate) but I have not much hope of recovering my account. Not to mention that I never had and I’m not aware of any DCMA takedown notice.

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