Google is used to charges of copyright violation at this point, having frequently come under fire for that digital archiving of books involved in Google Book Search, but today they’re running into a new barrier with their image search.

The problem comes from a lawsuit against Google by the pornography company Perfect 10, Inc., which accused Google of copyright breach through their presentation of derived thumbnail images of their copyright images. The ruling by US District Judge Howard Matz states in part that the use of these images is not lawful because Google is profiting from keyword advertising and therefore stands to gain from this image search.

Of course, this could, if extended, be quite a revelation for Google. After all, the entire basis of the company’s success comes from profits from keyword searching. And why is this different when it’s text rather than images? It seems that Google’s ability to find your site is a violation of copyright, since they may make a profit.

And there’s another little problem – Google does not place ads on its image search results. So is this ruling stating that Google stands to profit from its use of these images because it uses ads elsewhere on the site? This seems a rather broad interpretation of gain, to me! That’s like saying that a scholar making fair use of a copyright image may be sued because they have ALSO written a complete unrelated bestseller which did not contain any copyrighted images.

The full 48-page court order is, of course, quite a bit more complicated than this. It addresses whether or not a thumbnail image is, in fact, less valuable than the full-scale image and also whether or not Google’s use of frames to display the full image is also a violation of the company’s copyright, since the visitor, in essence, never visits the actual site. If you want to learn more, I’d suggest reading the document. [PDF (Portable Document Format)]