News

Google aided pirating Web site, affidavit claims

Elise Ackerman
San Jose Mercury News

SAN JOSE, Calif. - For nearly a year, a legal document charges, Google employees aided a Missouri-based company that provided software and tech support to people who downloaded pirated software and movies.

Among the victims were Microsoft, Symantec, Adobe and Intuit, according to a sealed affidavit filed late last year in the Southern District of New York and obtained by the San Jose Mercury News.

The affidavit provides new details regarding Google's alleged role in promoting piracy in a lawsuit involving two Missouri men and seven of the country's largest movie and TV studios.

Google declined to discuss the allegations. In a statement, Google said it was looking at steps to screen out "potentially problematic ads." The company said it prohibits advertisers from using Google to promote the sale of copyright-infringing materials.

But Luke Sample, 26, a guitarist from Cape Girardeau, Mo., and his business partner, Brandon Drury, 26, who owns an independent recording studio, maintained as one of their defenses in the lawsuit that a Google employee suggested they advertise the availability of pirated copies of movies such as "Batman Begins" and "Cinderella Man."

"The movie names were never requested by Internet Billers," the men stated in court papers, referring to an offshore company they had established on the Caribbean island of Nevis. "They were suggested by Google."

The affidavit also states that Google recommended an advertising campaign be built around keywords referring to pirated software.

The men's statements are embarrassing for Google, which has been trying for months to get permission from the studios to legally distribute their content on its YouTube subsidiary. Last week, Viacom, which owns Paramount Pictures, requested that YouTube take down more than 100,000 unauthorized clips. Paramount Pictures is a party in the suit against Sample and Drury.

According to a sealed affidavit submitted by Sample on Dec. 22 and obtained by the San Jose Mercury News, Sample and Drury paid Google more than $800,000 for advertising to promote Web sites offering people software for downloading, playing or burning copies of films, television programs and software they found on the Internet.

Sample and Drury, who are representing themselves in court, did not respond to repeated requests for interviews.

According to the affidavit and other documents, Sample and Drury launched a business in June 2003 operating four Web sites: www.thedownloadplace.com, www.easydownloadcenter.com, www.directdownloader.com and www.themp3place.com. In exchange for a one-year membership that cost $29.95, customers got a copy of a popular file-sharing program and step-by-step instructions on how to use it. A "lifetime" membership cost $39.95.

For an additional $14.95 customers could purchase a "Pro Movie Pack," which made it easy to watch pirated movies that had been uploaded in a variety of different formats.

In his affidavit, Sample said he first contacted Google through its automated AdWords program that lets advertisers bid on "keywords" or search terms that trigger advertisements that run alongside Google's search results.

Beginning in April 2004, however, Sample said he began communicating directly with individual Google employees. "I contacted Google at that time to complain that while we were paying Google large amounts for sponsored links - more than $150,000 - we were unhappy with the `conversion rate,'" Sample wrote in the affidavit. While people were clicking on Sample's ads, they were not buying memberships at his Web sites, he explained.

By the summer of 2004, Sample and Drury were spending about $20,000 a month on Google advertising. "In the fall, apparently due to the amount we were spending, Google assigned employees to be our personal account representatives," the affidavit stated.

Sample said the Google representative "expressed familiarity with our business and the content of our Web sites" and, in November 2004, he offered to have Google optimize their advertising campaign.

Sample said Google suggested sponsored links referring to the names of specific artists: Ryan Cabrera, Usher, Nellie and others, whose music was available on illegal file-sharing networks. According to the affidavit, "In January 2005, Google suggested and we agreed to an `optimization' for another campaign for the same website, sic geared toward downloads of software programs.

"Among other things, Google proposed that we buy sponsored link advertisements such as: Microsoft XP Software, Download Unlimited Top Software, Join Now - See Our Special Offer!

"Google proposed, and we agreed to run, similar sponsored links for other popular software companies, none of which we were authorized to distribute, including: Microsoft Word, Norton Anti-Virus, Photoshop and Quicken. The keywords associated with these advertisements combined with software titles with the words `free' and `download.'"

Microsoft, Symantec and Adobe said they hadn't heard about Google's role until a San Jose Mercury News reporter contacted them. "If it is true and not an isolated incident, then these are very serious allegations, and we will be following them closely," said Whitney Burk, a Microsoft spokeswoman.

Intuit, which sells Quicken and is one of Google's close partners, did not comment.

Sample and Drury shut down their business in October 2005 after the studios sued them. In total, the men estimated they sold more than 30,000 memberships and took in about $1.1 million, virtually all, they said, from Google searches.

In a Jan. 2 letter to the federal judge who is overseeing the case, an attorney who is representing the studios said they were negotiating a settlement with Sample and Drury. A hearing is scheduled for Friday.

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