Google Digital Book Scanning Case Still Plodding Through the Courts

Google has been digitally scanning more than 20 million books for online searches since 2004. Authors groups and others have opposed the efforts ever since.

Google's move back in 2004 to digitally scan some 20 million books so that Web searchers can find sections of them in searches has been vehemently opposed by critics, who argue that the practice is copyright infringement without payment.

The battle has been in the courts for about eight years, with at least two proposed settlements coming and going since 2009. Now the case was heard yet again in New York City on Sept. 23 as Google attorneys argued that digitally copying the books is allowable under federal copyright laws.

Google lawyers at the hearing argued "that the fair-use provision of the Copyright Act shields it from liability for infringement," according to a Sept. 23 story by Bloomberg. The hearing was held before U.S. Circuit Judge Denny Chin, who is being asked by Google's legal team to end the 8-year-old court fight by ruling in Google's favor.

Chin "quizzed both sides about the public's interest in the project," according to the Bloomberg report, and several times asked a lawyer for The Authors Guild, which has been fighting the scanning from the start, "to provide him with any disputed facts that would prevent him from ruling in Google's favor."

The hearing continues a legal battle that has centered on whether the scanned books should require payments to their authors by Google. Google argues that the materials are an extension of fair use, while opponents argue that the scanning amounts essentially to theft of the materials.

Google could face more than $3 billion in damages if it is ultimately found guilty of using the materials illegally, according to the Bloomberg report. It is not known when the judge will rule following the latest hearing on the case.

"Google has engaged in a massive campaign of bulk copying of books, which could adversely affect actual and potential markets for copyrighted books," a group of affected authors said in a court brief, according to the story. "Google argued that providing snippets of text from more than 20 million books in online searches constitutes fair use under copyright law because the action benefits the public and authors and doesn't cause them financial or other harm."

The latest court hearing follows several years of purported settlements that in the end always seemed to fall apart.

The first proposed settlement came back in 2008 between Google and opponents, but it was ultimately rejected by Chin, according to a previous eWEEK report. Chin ruled at the time that the proposed agreement would give too much power to Google at the expense of competitors. The U.S. Justice Department said the deal might violate antitrust and copyright law, which prompted Google to revise that original settlement in November 2009.

Another settlement attempt came in September 2011, but it again did not succeed. Google and the plaintiffs had been at the bargaining table since March 2011, when Chin struck down a deal that would let the search giant scan and store millions of "orphaned" works. Orphaned works include titles that are out of print and whose authors can't be found or are unknown. Chin said then that the deal "would give Google a de facto monopoly over unclaimed works" and deemed it unfair to rights' holders whose copyrighted works would be served online without their permission.