Google attracts millions of Web users every day. And, increasingly, it's attracting the attention of plenty of lawyers, too.
As Google has grown into the world's most popular search engine and, arguably, the most powerful Internet company, it has become entangled in scores of lawsuits touching on a wide range of legal questions, including copyright violation, trademark infringement and its method of ranking Web sites.
Any company that is large and successful is going to attract lawsuits, and Google's deep pockets make it an especially big target. But as it rushes to create innovative new services, Google sometimes operates in a way that almost seems to invite legal scrutiny.
A group of authors and publishers is challenging the com-pany's right to scan books that are still under copyright. A small Web site in California is suing Google because it was removed from the company's search results. And European news agencies have sued over Google's use of their headlines and photos in Google News.
In these cases and others, potential legal problems seem to give the company little pause before it plunges into new ventures.
"I think Google is wanting to push the boundaries," said Jonathan Zittrain, professor of Internet governance and regulation at Oxford University.
"The Internet ethos of the '90s, the expansionist ethos, was, `Just do it, make it cool, make it great and we'll cut the rough edges off later,"' Zittrain said. "They're really trying to preserve a culture that says, `Just do it, and consult with the lawyers as you go so you don't do anything flagrantly ill-advised.'"
Now, with its planned US$1.65 billion acquisition of the video site YouTube, which contains not just homemade videos but also copyrighted clips that users upload without permission, some observers say Google is exposing itself to a new spate of lawsuits.
Along with YouTube's 34 million viewers, Google will inherit a lawsuit filed last summer against the company. Robert Tur, the owner of a video shot during the 1992 riots in Los Angeles that shows a truck driver being beaten by rioters, is suing YouTube for copyright infringement.
"Clearly, we investigated that whole issue," said David Drummond, Google's general counsel and senior vice president of corporate development.
Drummond pointed to the "safe harbor" provision of the 1998 Digital Millennium Copyright Act. A number of courts have held that under this provision, Web sites are not liable for copyrighted content posted by users, as long as they promptly remove it when it is pointed out to them.
"We rely on the same safe harbor that YouTube relies on, so we're fairly familiar with the issues," Drummond said. "If you look at it, it's somewhat illustrative of the kinds of lawsuits we face."
Google has been known to settle, but for the most part it aggressively fights litigation -- so far with a good deal of success.
Over the last few years, the company has spent millions in legal fees and hired a small army of bright young lawyers, many of them technically proficient and experts in the field of intellectual property.
The company's legal department has grown from one lawyer in 2001 to nearly 100 lawyers now, not just at its headquarters in Mountain View, California, but also overseas. The company has also retained counsel at many outside law firms.