Google Book-Scanning Project is Legal, According to a U.S. Appeals Court

A U.S. appeals court has ruled that Google’s massive effort to scan millions of books for an online library does not violate copyright law, rejecting claims from a group of authors that the project illegally deprives them of revenue. The 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New York rejected infringement claims from the Authors Guild and several individual writers, and found that the project provides a public service without violating intellectual property law.

A unanimous three-judge appeals panel said the case “tests the boundaries of fair use,” but found Google’s practices were ultimately allowed under the law. The ruling will encourage Google to continue adding digital images of books to the Google Books web site.

Older books that are no longer protected by copyright laws are fully visible to Google’s users. In fact, the digital images of the entire books can be downloaded and saved by the user. The Authors Guild lawsuit only focused on newer books that are still under copyright protection. Google scans entire books but those still under copyright protection are not visible in their entirety to users and cannot be downloaded. Instead, when the user searches for words or phrases within Google Books, the results only show a small snippet within the book that matches the search terms. The entire copyrighted book cannot be downloaded.

Google’s lawyers argued that the display of snippets falls under the “fair use” provision of US copyright law and the court obviously agreed. “Google’s division of the page into tiny snippets is designed to show the searcher just enough context surrounding the searched term to help her evaluate whether the book falls within the scope of her interest (without revealing so much as to threaten the author’s copyright interests),” Circuit Judge Pierre Leval wrote for the court.

Google also argued that displaying snippets of text from copyrighted material actually benefits the authors and publishers as it encourages users to purchase the entire book. However, it is impossible to measure the increased sales resulting from Google Books searches.

The case is Authors Guild v. Google Inc, 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, No. 13-4829. The case details may be found in a PDF file at https://goo.gl/nKqppD.

The 2nd Circuit had previously rejected a similar lawsuit from the Authors Guild in June 2014 against a consortium of universities and research libraries that built a searchable online database of millions of scanned works.

2 Comments

“….Google also argued that displaying snippets of text from copyrighted material actually benefits the authors and publishers as it encourages users to purchase the entire book….”

In the past year, as a result of reading the snippets, I have purchased two books that my local bookshop did not stock and had to special order for me. I wouldn’t have known either book existed if not for the Google snippets. There are several more I would buy if they were not out of print and I am currently trying to find a library that has copies of those.

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Anyone who goes into a bookstore or a library, will usually flip through a book, glancing at snippets before deciding whether to buy/borrow the book. I would agree that the snippets would be useful. If I couldn’t tell from a title and “description” if the book contained anything of value to me, I wouldn’t be likely to buy it. The snippets might give me reason to consider it a worthwhile purchase.

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