In 1925, a music industry professional complained to the New York Times that the new medium of radio was destroying the industry’s business model by making songs too widely available to the public for free. The Times quoted the unnamed professional saying:

The public will not buy songs it can hear almost at will by a brief manipulation of the radio dials. If we could control completely the broadcasting of our compositions we would endeavor to prevent this saturation of the radio listeners with any particular song.[…]

We are striving to have the copyright law, which protects us from the free use of our compositions by the makers of phonograph records and music rolls, construed to cover broadcasting. The law specifies that we must be compensated if any of our songs are used by some one else for profit to them. We contend that the radio station is an enterprise founded for gain. It is not controlled by those purveying sets or parts, it is employed by organizations which use it as a medium of institutional advertising.

The music industry professional got his wish as far as copyright, and has turned out to be right in another way as well, though surely not in a way he would have expected. Radio is treated as free advertising – and primarily for music producers! This is, in fact, the main reason why terrestrial radio stations are presently statutorily exempt from paying royalties.

Today, the story of radio’s transition from content industry bete noir to one of its core advertisers is being replayed in the case of another medium that content industry professionals once lambasted as nothing but a gateway for pirates: search engines,

In a report released today by Google, the company lays out the case that search engines aren’t major driver of piracy.  The report claims that search is responsible for just 16 percent of the traffic to sites that host pirated content. By contrast, studies have shown that 64 percent of the traffic to legitimate sites comes from search engines.

To take one example, “katy perry” gets searched for 200,000 more times on Google than “free katy perry mp3.” What’s more, under new changes to the company’s search algorithm, legitimate sources of Katy Perry’s music will show up first on both searches, at no cost to Perry herself (though individual content salesmen such as Apple, Amazon or Spotify can pay to have their digital storefronts advertised prominently).

Starting in 2012, Google began “downranking” sites that receive a high volume of Digital Millennium Copyright Act take-down complaints, meaning that those results automatically are ranked lower in Google’s search algorithm. The new tweaks will go further to prioritize results for  legitimate sources of film, music and other copyrighted content, as well as offering users multiple sources from which that content can be purchased, rented or streamed. This would apply even for obvious piracy-oriented searches, such as “the big lebowski torrent.”

In short, for content producers, search engines serve as a form of free advertising, paid for either by middlemen online retailers, or by the search engine itself. As the Google report puts it:

Piracy often arises when consumer demand goes unmet by legitimate supply. As services ranging from Netflix to Spotify to iTunes have demonstrated, the best way to combat piracy is with better and more convenient legitimate services. The right combination of price, convenience and inventory will do far more to reduce piracy than enforcement can.

Consumers have a huge appetite for content, and there’s evidence that they’re willing to pay a lot for it. A report from May 2013 found that the most frequent consumers of pirated digital files actually spend 300 percent more on content than so-called “honest” consumers. This tendency for piracy itself to serve as a form of free advertising is why savvy media producers, such as the makers of HBO’s Game of Thrones, find high piracy rates flattering, rather than alarming. Once HBO’s new stand-alone streaming service launches, these users of pirated content easily could turn into legitimate consumers.

Search engines thus have a huge opportunity to exploit a market with an above-average appetite for content and expose it to more ways to purchase that content. This benefits search engines like Google, but it also benefits the content industry itself.

Of course,  as the 1925 Times quote demonstrates, the content industry hasn’t always been eager to embrace innovation. The disruptive effects of the Internet have shaken a lot of established content industry business models, which has led some of those industries into efforts at outright censorship, both through abuse of the DMCA’s take-down system and through attempts to bake censorship into the Internet itself, via new legislation and trade agreements.

Google’s report  provides some truly lurid examples of what that “abuse” looks like, such as a film company allegedly trying to get a major newspaper’s review of their film blocked in search results. Techdirt has also outlined some truly ridiculous examples of DMCA takedown requests. In view of these shameless attempts at censorship, Google’s decision to protect against DMCA abuse from both directions is prudent. It remains to be seen whether these safeguards will continue to hold, but the proliferation of information about fair use on the Internet suggests reason for optimism.

Distinguishing between fighting piracy as an industry, and fighting individual pirates, who are rarely the hardened criminals that content industry advocates paint them as, could be a major step toward a better Internet both for consumers and producers.