Scanning millions of books is legal, the federal appeals court in New York intimated in its decision on Friday (16th October), rejecting authors’ claims that Google’s digital project, Google Books, violates copyright law.
The Authors Guild sued Google for its efforts to showcase millions of scanned books for an online library in 2005, claiming “massive copyright infringement” and illegally depriving them of revenue. The case was won by Google, and an author appeal has now been quashed by a unanimous three-judge panel in the 2nd US Circuit Court of Appeals.
After striking an agreement with several large research libraries to digitise and copy their collections in 2004, Google has since scanned more than 20 million books.
As part of its opinion, Second Circuit judge Pierre Level summised: "Google’s unauthorized digitizing of copyright-protected works, creation of a search functionality, and display of snippets from those works are non-infringing fair uses.
"The purpose of the copying is highly transformative, the public display of text is limited, and the revelations do not provide a significant market substitute for the protected aspects of the originals. Google’s commercial nature and profit motivation do not justify denial of fair use.
"Google’s provision of digitized copies to the libraries that supplied the books, on the understanding that the libraries will use the copies in a manner consistent with the copyright law, also does not constitute infringement.”
The Authors Guild website describes the Second Court's decision as leaving authors "high and dry" and a "flawed interpretation" of fair use.
Mary Rasenberger, executive director of the Authors Guild in New York, commented: “The Authors Guild is disappointed that the Court has failed to reverse the District Court’s faulty interpretation of the fair use doctrine.
"America owes its thriving literary culture to copyright protection. It’s unfortunate that a Court as well-respected as the Second Circuit does not see the damaging effect that uses such as Google’s can have on authors’ potential income.
"Most full-time authors live on the perilous edge of being able to sustain themselves through writing as a profession, as our recent income survey showed, so even relatively small losses in income can make it unsustainable to continue writing for a living. We are disheartened that the court was unable to comprehend the grave impact that this decision, if left standing, could have on copyright incentives and, ultimately, our literary heritage.
"We trust that the Supreme Court will see fit to correct the Second Circuit’s reductive understanding of fair use, and to recognize Google’s seizure of property as a serious threat to writers and their livelihoods, one which will affect the depth, resilience and vitality of our intellectual culture.”
Google Books is described by Google as “the world's most comprehensive index of full-text books”. Google – the parent for which is now Google Alphabet – stood to lose billions had the court of appeals not ruled in its favour.