Google’s Book Scanning Falls Under Fair Use Doctrine



In a landmark ruling, Google won the decade-old lawsuit in which the Authors’ Guild sued the company for allegedly infringing on publishers’ copyrights by scanningtheir books.

Google started scanning out-of-print books in 2004 by working with major libraries like Stanford, Columbia, the University of California, and the New York Public Library to get access to 20 million such books.

Google got sued a year later, in 2005, when the Authors Guild claimed that Google was infringing copyrights when scanning the books without the writers’ permission. In 2013, a lower court judge ruled that Google’s actions fell under the fair use doctrine. The Guild appealed the ruling, but the Appeals Court ruled the same way now in a unanimous decision (3-0).

Although Google itself has access to the full text of all of those books from the massive scanning project, that text is not shown to the public. When people search for something specific about a book, then Google returns only a limited amount of information about that book.

The court found that Google’s book snippets are usually only one eighth of a page, and there can only be one snippet per page and a maximum of three snippets in total for a given search term. In some cases, the snippet view isn’t available when the whole snippet could satisfy the user’s search, such as for cookbooks or dictionaries.

The Authors Guild argued that Google stripped them of a “licensed search market,” where instead of Google providing that book context for free, the authors and publishers could’ve gotten paid for it in license fees. However, the judges said that because the snippets provide information about the book, then that information is not covered by copyright law, and therefore it can’t be licensed by the authors.

The Guild also made an argument about a potential data breach that could expose all of their books, which would then degrade their value if they were later disseminated online. However, the court found Google’s security measures, which included keeping the files “walled off from the public Internet,” good enough.

The Authors’ Guild promised to keep fighting and take the case to the Supreme Court:

“We are very disheartened that the court was unable to understand the grave impact that this decision, if left standing, could have on copyright incentives and, ultimately, our literary heritage. We trust that the Supreme Court will see fit to correct the Second Circuit’s reduction of fair use to a one-factor test—whether the use is, in the court’s eye, ‘transformative.’”


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