Google wants to digitize the world’s books, a key element in its longstanding mission to make all information available to anyone with a Web connection.
The Authors Guild, which describes itself as the nation’s leading advocate for writers’ copyrights, thinks Google’s plan violates fair use protections.
But the Guild’s attempt to stop Google in court hit a decisive roadblock this week, as Judge Denny Chin of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York ruled that Google Books—at least in its current iteration—has the right to scan and upload books for the Internet’s collective perusal.
Google has already scanned some twenty million books as part of its project. Libraries that donate books for scanning are given a digital copy of the work free of charge, but Google has made no attempt to compensate copyright holders for scanning and displaying their books’ e-copies. And while Google Books has become a valuable tool for students and researchers, Google has also taken steps to ensure a curious reader won’t simply download, screen-capture, or transcribe an entire volume—searching through the text returns “snippets” that can’t be puzzled into a whole.
Fans of Google Books argue that the platform allows for the preservation of texts that would ordinarily go out of print and fade away; digitizing books also makes them available to the broadest possible audience. But does digitization without compensating copyright holders violate fair use?
Judge Chin didn’t think so. “Google Books does not supersede or supplant books because it is not a tool to be used to read books,” he wrote in his decision (hat tip to The Verge for the link). “Instead, it ‘adds value to the original’ and allows for ‘the creation of new information, new aesthetics, new insights and understandings.’” Furthermore, in his eyes, the fact that Google is a commercial enterprise dedicated to making profits has no bearing on whether its scanning of books constitutes fair use: it makes no money off the snippets it displays. Previous court decisions have found that the libraries donating the books for scanning are protected under the fair use doctrine.
Although Google scans entire books, it limits the amount of text displayed on every search. That makes it difficult for the Authors Guild to argue that Google will somehow make a profit off Google Books that would otherwise go to the copyright holders. “In my view, Google Books provides significant public benefits,” Chin concluded.
The Authors Guild didn’t agree with the decision. “This case presents a fundamental challenge to copyright that merits review by a higher court,” Authors Guild executive director Paul Aiken wrote in a statement. “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.”
It plans on appealing; but it’s questionable how much further this battle will continue.