In what analysts are describing as a big win for scholars and libraries, federal circuit court judge Denny Chin today dismissed a lawsuit against Google brought by the Authors Guild claiming that the company had violated copyrights by digitizing millions of books and making short samples of the works available via its Google Books service. In the decision, Chin stated that Google Books provided “significant public benefits” and that the digitized works were protected by the principle of fair use.
Google has been scanning books into its searchable online database since 2004, while the Authors Guild has been suing over the practice for nearly that long, bringing its case against the tech giant in 2005. The Guild’s case took a hit in July of this year, when the 2nd U.S. Court of Appeals stripped the case of its class action status, a ruling that many industry watchers saw as strengthening Google’s case that its actions were covered under the fair use umbrella. For a comprehensive history of this long and winding case, you can take a look at past roundups here, here, and here, courtesy of infoDOCKET’s Gary Price.
Today, Judge Denny Chin granted a motion filed by Google more than a year ago, in which it argued that author’s copyrights were not damaged by having their titles digitized into Google Books, as readers could not peruse the entire book, but only explore selections from it. In order to read the whole thing, Google argued, “readers still must buy a book from a store or borrow it from a library.”
In the opinion issued today, Judge Chin agreed that Google Books is not a place where readers can go to pirate books but a tool to help people find books that may be of interest to them. Chin cited libraries as a particular beneficiary, noting that “Google Books has become an essential research tool, as it helps librarians identify and find research sources, it make the process of interlibrary lending more efficient, and it facilitates finding and checking citations.”
Attorney Jonathan Band, who penned a friend of the court brief on behalf of the Library Copyright Alliance, said that independent of larger question of fair use policy, those factors make the decision a good one. “Libraries have found this tool extremely useful from the beginning ,” Band told Library Journal. “Purely from a lib mission perspective, Google Books is extremely useful, so the decision is terrific.” Library organizations echoed Band’s tone today. Association of College & Research Libraries president Trevor Dawes said that “this ruling, that strongly supports fair use principles, enables the discovery of a wealth of resources by researchers and scholars,” while American Library Association president Barbara Stripling said that the ruling “furthers the purpose of copyright by recognizing that Google’s Book search is a transformative fair use that advances research and learning.”
Chin’s opinion is the latest in a series of defeats for the Authors Guild, which recently began its appeal against a similar decision in its case against the HathiTrust. James Grimmelmann, a University of Maryland law professor who has followed the case since it began, said that taken together, these decisions constitute a major win for the principles of fair use and accessibility. “This is a big step forward for full text indexing,” Grimmelmann told Library Journal. “The decision will encourage other institutions to digitize their collections and make them searchable. Libraries will be able to take advantage of more tools to help make their texts accessible online.”
In his opinion, Chin also noted that Google Books could actually be of benefit to authors and publishers by helping readers to discover their books and offering them easy access to purchase the titles. The Google Books page for plaintiff Jim Bouton’s baseball memoir Ball Four links out to retailers such as Amazon and Barnes & Noble. “Hence,” Chin writes, “Google Books will generate new audiences and create new sources of income.” You can read the full text of the opinion, along with reactions from around the web, at infoDOCKET.
While the language in judge Chin’s decision is fairly strong, this doesn’t necessarily mark the end of the suit; in fact, the Authors Guild has already filed an appeal in the case. In a statement on the Guild’s website, executive director Paul Aiken wrote “This case presents a fundamental challenge to copyright that merits review by a higher court….In our view, such mass digitization and exploitation far exceeds the bounds of fair use defense.”
According to Grimmelmann, though, the Guild’s odds don’t look good, as previous cases have held that adding search functions to a work are transformative changes. “As a practical matter, the case is seeming increasingly resolved,” Grimmelmann said. “It’s looking like this is the new reality of fair use.” Band was even less sanguine about the Guild’s chances, describing their appeal as “throwing good money after bad.”