If you are anything like the average college student, you have probably scrambled for a book desperately needed for a research project in the last few days before said project is due. The most common fix to this problem is a technique perfected over the last decade – just google it. Google Books contains millions of scanned pages of books that are a click away from being your research project savior.
Eight years ago, all that was thrown into jeopardy when an organization called The Authors Guild filed a class action lawsuit against Google’s mass digitization project for copyright infringement. The Authors Guild, along with several authors whose works appear on Google Books without permission, argue that Google benefits financially from their work, thereby violating copyright law.
On November 14, 2013, however, federal district judge Denny Chin granted Google’s motion for summary judgment, dismissing the suit. In his 30-page opinion, Judge Chin declared that Google Books met the requirements for the “fair use” defense to copyright infringement. This defense permits the fair use of copyrighted works “to fulfill copyright’s very purpose, to promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts.” Judge Chin found that Google Books met the four factors of the fair use defense: 1) nonprofit educational purposes, 2) nature of the copyrighted work, 3) sustainability of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole, and 4) effect of the use on the potential market for or value of the copyrighted work. Wired provides a great summary of Google’s fulfillment of the four factors.
In his opinion, Judge Chin largely focused on the many benefits of Google Books, such as its efficiency in obtaining books as a reference tool, increasing general access, and allowing scholars to analyze massive amounts of data. Judge Chin acknowledged the legitimacy of plaintiff’s main argument that Google Books is a for-profit commercial enterprise, but emphasized that the scanned pages themselves are not for sale, and no advertisements are present on the pages containing the snippets of the book. Therefore, Google “does not engage in the direct commercialization of copyrighted books.”
Judge Chin further explained that by providing links to where the book may be purchased, Google Books actually enhances the sale of the books to the benefit of copyright holders. In fact, many authors have noticed online databases such as Google allows readers to find their work, thereby increasing their audiences.
The only factor that Judge Chin did mark as weighing slightly in the plaintiff’s favor is the third: sustainability of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole. Google scans the full text of these books, and provides certain sections for different searches. Google does, however, limit the amount of text displayed for each search, and therefore Judge Chin found this factor only “slightly against” a finding of fair use.
In response to the dismissal of its suit, the Authors Guild has declared an intention to appeal after expressing their disappointment and disagreement with the decision. This case, however, has lasted almost a decade, and is not likely to be reversed due to the overwhelming public benefits for Google Books. Not only is Google Books “highly transformative” in the way we research, but it also allows authors to get noticed.
The key sticking point is that this service benefits authors far more than it hinders them. Google Books will most likely be here to stay, much to the relief of student procrastinators (and realistically, everyone else who likes books) everywhere.
For another look at this landmark decision, see http://www.mttlrblog.org/2013/11/24/google-one-step-closer-to-world-domination-seriously/.