In a significant legal victory for Google, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit ruled Oct. 16 that the company's massive project to make digital copies of tens of millions of books does not violate copyright laws.
The opinion, by a three-judge panel of the appellate court, affirms an earlier decision by a New York district court that had also rejected the copyright-infringement claims that the Authors Guild and three writers had brought against Google.
The dispute involves Google's Library Project under which the company is scanning and cataloging book collections from major libraries so users can search for them via Google Books.
When an individual searches for a book, Google presents information about the title, very often with snippets of texts from the book. Google Books also offers what it calls a Full View option for books that are out of copyright or with author permission. As Google describes it, Full View allows searchers to view the entire contents of a book and even download or save it on their computers.
Google allows libraries that participate in its project to download and retain a digital copy of the books they submit for scanning to Google.
The Authors Guild, which represents working authors, sued Google; the Guild claimed that scanning books without permission from rights-holders constitutes copyright infringement. Google maintained that the copying fell under the definition of "fair use" in copyright law.
The U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, which heard the case, sided with Google's viewpoint, prompting the appeal from the Authors Guild and other plaintiffs. In the appeal, they argued that Google's book-scanning project does not really represent a "transformative use" and, instead, acts as a substitute for the original works. Among several other things, they argued that Google's storage of digital copies of books heightened the risk of hackers making the books available freely on the Internet.
In its opinion Oct. 16, the appeals court, however, rejected the arguments and upheld the district court's earlier ruling in the case.
"Google's making of a digital copy to provide a search function is a transformative use, which augments public knowledge by making available information about Plaintiffs' books," Circuit Judge Pierre Leval wrote on behalf of the Second Circuit panel.
Google's actions do not provide the public with an alternative for matter protected by copyright. The same holds true of the snippet function, which allows searchers to see small samples of text from a book without infringing on copyright protections, the court held.
The appellate court also downplayed the risk of hackers exposing copyrighted works for free on the Internet. "Google's program does not, at this time and on the record before us, expose Plaintiffs to an unreasonable risk of loss of copyright value through incursions of hackers," Judge Leval wrote in the court's 48-page ruling on the matter.
In a statement on its Website, the Authors Guild described the ruling as leaving authors "high and dry" and hinted the case could go before the Supreme Court.
Mary Rasenberger, executive director of the Authors Guild, expressed disappointment at the ruling and warned of the "grave impact" it would have on writers and their ability to continue earning income from their works. "Most full-time authors live on the edge of being able to keep writing as a profession," Rasenberger said. "A loss of licensing revenue can tip the balance, particularly in this era when advances and royalties for most authors are down."
The dispute between Google and the Authors Guild goes back to 2005. The initial class action suit ultimately ended in a proposed settlement between the two sides, with Google agreeing to pay rights-holders in return for being able to use the scanned text more extensively.
In 2011, the New York district court rejected the settlement on the grounds that it was unfair to the class members represented by the Authors Guild. Following that decision, the Authors Guild in October 2011 once again filed an amended class-action complaint, setting off the chain of legal events that resulted in the Oct. 16 decision by the appeals court.