Google scored a major victory earlier this month when the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Manhattan ruled that the company’s massive undertaking in creating a digital library doesn’t infringe on the rights of authors because it’s fair use. This comes after a ten-year legal fight with the Authors Guild, the largest organization of published authors in the U.S., which sued for copyright infringement in 2005, the year after Google began the project through a partnership with libraries.
Judge Pierre Leval, who wrote the opinion that affirmed the lower court’s ruling, noted that this case tested “the boundaries of fair use,” but found that Google Books ultimately satisfied the elements of the well-known four-factor review. While the court took each factor in turn, it focused largely on just two: whether Google’s use of the books was transformative, which is copyright-speak for “not simply a regurgitation of the author’s work in its original state,” and the effect the digital library could have on the market for books. The court ruled that Google Books was incredibly transformative, and this finding is almost always a huge point for the user of someone else’s work. Google Books allows people to search for books containing a specific term or phrase, which indicated to the court that it’s a research tool. The court also found that because Google only provides snippets of books, this format was also a transformative use.
As expected, the potential loss of revenue was a large part of the lawsuit for the Authors Guild, which had claimed that this was all about profit for Google. According to the opinion, the group argued that the company was “profit motivated” and would use “its dominance of book search to fortify its overall dominance of the Internet search market, and that thereby Google indirectly reaps profits from the Google Books functions.” The court didn’t buy this, and refused to give much weight to any commercial motivation, especially because the transformative use was so high.
The use of snippets also eliminated much of the possibility that Google Books would serve as competition to publishers and book retailers. No one’s going to spend time searching snippets to read an entire book. And most people using Google Books are searching for such specific information that it’s unlikely they would’ve purchased the entire book, anyway.
One very interesting point the court made about the fact that Google scans the books in their entirety – an act that usually weighs harshly against the secondary user – was that the company still limited the viewable contents to snippets. So, what could’ve been a huge blow actually turned out to work in its favor.
What does all of this mean now?
Google Books being legal certainly allows for greater access to books for everyone, and more opportunities to perform research right on your laptop or phone. We’ll probably see more databases replicate the Google Books format of snippets under fair use, too.
This ruling will also have interesting implications for Google in the long term. It’s the largest Internet search engine in the world, which means it will have control over how we receive information from any other book databases and digital libraries down the line. It would be very easy for the company to boost its own services to the top of the search rankings and crush all competitors. That’s a quick way to slip into monopoly territory.
The Authors Guild is expected to appeal the decision, so this is far from being completely settled. Be sure to keep visiting The Fried Firm’s blog for updates.