The US Patent and Trademark Office has granted Google a patent on a location-based content filtering system.
The patent details a method for screening content based on geographical location and access permissions. At first glance, this patent appears to pertain to censorship, a hot button topic for Google in the wake of their recent China crisis. If you dig deeper, though, it appears that this is likely more closely related to their Book Scanning project.
This patent provides a novel way for Google to negotiate the international minefield of copyright law.
One of the major contentious issues Google’s been dealing with in their Google Books project (besides angry Chinese authors) revolves around public domain literature. Most countries are signatories of the Berne Convention, which provided minimum standards of copyright and trademark protection.
Of course, many countries (like the US) elected to extend their periods of copyright protection mandated in the Berne Convention. This means that while some nations adhere to the Convention’s minimum standards, there are wild variations in other places. For example, the song “Happy Birthday to You” is ostensibly copyrighted until 2030 in the United States (although that is a point of contention for some), but only until 2016 in the European Union.
This means that while the books Google’s scanning could be public domain in the country they are scanned in, they might not be public domain in the nation that the website is viewed in. By using location-based blocks, which won’t allow access to content in places where it is trademarked, Google can neatly sidestep any copyright infringement lawsuits. They also plan to provide links to purchase the content for viewers who are blocked.
While Google may be on the side of good against insane copyright extensions (95 years for music!), they surely don’t want to continue waging legal battles around the world. This makes it easy for Google to keep pace with the world’s rapidly shifting copyright laws.