The case of the missing (searchable) content

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It was a dark, foggy night in Belgium when the ruling that Google had violated copyright law struck the table. In a swift move, content from 17 newspapers disappeared from the Google News site. On an equally dark day in February, this ruling was upheld.

It would be easy to muse about those quaint Europeans and their conservative views on the fair use of copyrighted material. Yet a cross the ocean, a similar move was made when Viacom ordered Google's YouTube to take down more than100,000 video clips that violated copyright.

The plot thickens. While Google's blog reminds us that "Google receives far more requests for inclusion than requests for removal," a reduction in free content to index could be the industry's No. 1 issue over the next few years. There is, after all, an intimate relationship between the quality and quantity of content in the index and the consumer behavior that drives search. Should the content pickings become so slim that search is no longer useful, we just might start looking elsewhere.

While some old-school content creators relish this scenario, I highly doubt that print-only newspapers and broadcast television are the wave of the future. Neither is demanding that consumers directly navigate to your site to access your content.

The future, however, just might revolve around paying for content. Yes, the same issue we have been struggling with from day one on the Web. The difference today is the consumer might still be able to enjoy free content, and it will be the engines' coffers that take the hit.

In theory, Google could simply pay a fine for each day that it does not comply with the recent ruling. This is one means of paying for content, albeit untraditional. There is also the option of brokering a deal. The New York Times recently reported that Universal Music Group is in the final stages of negotiating with Bolt.com to collect royalties from uploaded videos that contain its music. YouTube has just cracked a deal with Digital Music Group Inc. to provide classic television shows for free.

Clearly, this case is far from closed. Until then, we can only pay close attention to the clues left by a trail of lawsuits and creative negotiations.

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