After eight years of legal wrangling, a federal judge delivered a resounding victory for Google on Thursday by dismissing a lawsuit from the Authors Guild challenging the tech giant’s ambitious book-scanning project. In a landmark decision, Judge Denny Chin, of the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, found that Google Books is protected by the “fair use” principle of copyright law. In his opinion, Judge Chin wrote that the project “provides significant public benefits.”
Google hailed the verdict — as did the American Library Association, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and the Computer & Communications Industry Association. “This has been a long road and we are absolutely delighted with today’s judgement,” a Google spokesperson said in an emailed statement. “As we have long said Google Books is in compliance with copyright law and acts like a card catalog for the digital age giving users the ability to find books to buy or borrow.”
The Authors Guild expressed chagrin at Judge Chin’s ruling and vowed to appeal. “We disagree with and are disappointed by the court’s decision today,” Authors Guild executive director Paul Aiken said in a statement. “This case presents a fundamental challenge to copyright that merits review by a higher court. Google made unauthorized digital editions of nearly all of the world’s valuable copyright-protected literature and profits from displaying those works. In our view, such mass digitization and exploitation far exceeds the bounds of fair use defense.”
When Google announced the book-scanning project in 2004, the idea captured the imagination of many in the tech world and academia. What if millions of books — including rare and out-of-print books — were made available on the Internet? Could the dream of a universal library — a mythical goal that has existed for two millennia since the destruction of the Library of Alexandria — finally be within reach? For Google, it was a typically grandiose endeavor, undertaken under the leadership of company co-founder Larry Page, who made the effort one of his signature projects.
Google initially announced partnerships with several important academic institutions and libraries including Harvard, Stanford, Oxford, and the New York Public Library. In order to digitize their collections, Google began scanning thousands of print books, page-by-page, using sophisticated robotic cameras, some capable of digitizing 1,000 pages per hour. To date, Google has scanned more than 20 million books. (Harvard has since withdrawn from the project in favor of an academic effort called the Digital Public Library of America — but not until after Google had already scanned some 850,000 books from its collection.)
In 2005, the Authors Guild filed a lawsuit claiming that the project violated copyright law and didn’t adequately provide for compensation to rights-holders and authors. Since then, the two sides have waged a closely watched legal battle that’s come to be viewed as a central front in the broader struggle between legacy pre-Internet industries, including publishing, music and movies, and new digital upstarts, led by Google, who aim to bring these industries into the digital age.
In 2011, Google and the Authors Guild tried to settle the dispute, but Judge Chin rejected their proposed $125 million pact, saying it violated the “property rights” of people without their consent, particularly in the case of “orphan works,” out-of-print books whose authors can’t be located. For its part, Google has always maintained that its project is protected by “fair use,” a legal concept that allows for certain types of reproduction, when used for criticism, journalism, teaching, and academic research.
In the wake of that failed agreement, the Authors Guild and Association of American Publishers (AAP) split, and last year the AAP struck a deal with Google that gives publishers the choice to make their books available to Google for its project. Those who participate will have the option to receive a digital copy for their use, including to sell online. In Google’s model, users can browse up to 20% of books and then purchase digital versions through the Google Play online store, with rights-holders receiving a portion of the proceeds of the sale.
The Authors Guild lawsuit continued, however, leading up to Judge Chin’s decisive verdict on Thursday. In his ruling, Judge Chin agreed with Google’s legal argument that its book-scanning project, which makes so-called “snippets” of text available on the Internet, is protected by the “fair use” provision of U.S. copyright law. The judge found that Google’s book-scanning constituted a “transformative” use that “adds value to the original” and allows for “the creation of new information, new aesthetics, new insights and understandings.”
“It advances the progress of the arts and sciences, while maintaining respectful consideration for the rights of authors and other creative individuals, and without adversely impacting the rights of copyright holders,” Judge Chin wrote of Google Books. “It preserves books, in particular out-of-print and old books that have been forgotten in the bowels of libraries, and it gives them new life. It facilitates access to books for print-disabled and remote or underserved populations. It generates new audiences and creates new sources of income for authors and publishers. Indeed, all society benefits.”
The Library Copyright Alliance — which includes the American Library Association, the Association of College & Research Libraries and the Association of Research Libraries — hailed the decision. “This ruling furthers the purpose of copyright by recognizing that Google’s Book search is a transformative fair use that advances research and learning,” said Barbara Stripling, president of the American Library Association. Carol Pitts Diedrichs, president of the Association of Research Libraries, said the ruling “makes clear that fair use permits mass digitization of books for purposes that advance the arts and sciences, such as search, preservation and access for the print-disabled.”
Matt Schruers, vice president for law and policy at Computer & Communications Industry Association, called the ruling “a vindication for transformative technologies” on the Internet. “Judge Chin’s opinion makes unmistakably clear that the public’s access to revolutionary tools like Book Search, which advance research and understanding, and expand access to underserved populations, should not be limited by formalistic objections to scanning and indexing,” Schruers said in a statement.
Time and time again, the rapid progress of technological innovation outpaces existing legal and regulatory structures. Judge Chin’s decision is a clear-headed and common sense application of the “fair use” doctrine to a vexing and protracted legal battle that has dragged on for eight years. Judge Chin’s decision will set an important precedent that will pave the way for further technological innovation that benefits the public and advances the quest to make the world’s information accessible to people everywhere.