Google Books Isn’t Copyright Infringement

A landmark court ruling allows the tech giant digitize library books

Michael Kai/Corbis

After a decade of court battles, Google's massive book-scanning project has finally been deemed legal. On Friday, a three-judge panel in the Second Circuit sided with the tech giant, declaring that its project to digitize library books is within the boundaries of fair use.

In the 11 years since Google Books Library Project began, the company has amassed a collection of more than 30 million books, nearly putting its collection on par with the Library of Congress. Although Google intended to make snippets of its books searchable, while charging a fee to access the full versions, a lawsuit brought by the Author's Guild has kept its collection locked behind a digital fence, Tim Wu explains at the New Yorker.

The decade-long legal fight hinged on whether Google's project counts as fair use under copyright law. In the United States, fair use is defined as "a legal doctrine that promotes freedom of expression by permitting the unlicensed use of copyright-protected works in certain circumstances" depending on what medium the original work is in, how it is used, how much of the original copyrighted work is used and whether the new work directly competes with the original.

In this case, the Author's Guild argued that Google was guilty of copyright infringement for scanning books, then publishing them without permission from the original creators. Google's defense claimed that digitizing the books into snippets had changed the material. Though the court ruled that the Author's Guild case "tests the boundaries of fair use," it ultimately found that Google did not break the law. Judge Pierre N. Leval writes in the ruling:

Snippet view, at best and after a large commitment of manpower, produces discontinuous, tiny fragments, amounting in the aggregate to no more than 16% of a book. This does not threaten the rights holders with any significant harm to the value of their copyrights or diminish their harvest of copyright revenue.

This is the second time an appeals court has ruled in Google's favor, though it may not be the last. The Author's Guild plans to appeal the decision to the Supreme Court. Had the judges found Google guilty of copyright infringement, Cory Doctorow writes for Boing Boing, the ruling could have challenged the very concept of the search engine itself. If the court had decided Google Books infringed on copyright, that legal precedent may have also applied to the excerpting tools that make search engines useful. Without those snippets, it's possible that navigating the Internet would be more difficult.

But for now, Google is in the clear — unless the Supreme Court steps in.

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