Judge Sides with Google on Book Search Tool Benefits

A search tool that college libraries use is upheld in district court as a fair use of copyrighted books.

by Tanya Roscorla / November 18, 2013 0

A recent court ruling that upholds the legality of Google Book Search is a win for society, but a group of authors plans to appeal.

The Authors Guild filed a lawsuit complaining that Google digitized copyrighted works without permission and ultimately could hurt the market for those books because it displays small pieces of them in search results. Judge Denny Chin dismissed the complaint on Thursday, Nov. 14, in the Southern District of New York and said the search tool benefits the public. 

A number of public and university libraries have allowed Google to scan more than 20 million of their books so they could be digitized, indexed and made searchable. A legal battle over the digitization project has been going on for the past eight years, and the guild says it will appeal, as it has already done on a current case against university libraries in the Hathi Trust. The Hathi Trust project makes digital copies of university library books available at various levels, including the books scanned by Google, and allows people with a print disability to read an entire book.

Many college libraries and library users utilize Google Book Search to find books on topics they're researching, according to an amicus brief in The Authors Guild Inc., et al. v. Google, Inc. case filed by Jonathan Band, counsel to the Library Copyright Alliance. The tool identifies valuable research sources, allows librarians to decide whether to request the books through interlibrary loan, promotes citation finding and checking, and is integrated into the educational system, he argued in the brief.

"Google Book Search is just a fabulous tool for students and scholars and if the court had found that it was unlawful and Google had to take it down, that would have been a huge loss to students, scholars and consumers," Band said.

Band is confident that the circuit courts will affirm the district court decisions in both cases. The two rulings on these cases suggest that the courts recognize the benefits of making copies as long as the full text of copyrighted works can't be accessed and it doesn't displace the market for original works, Band said.

With Google Book Search, libraries and library users can discover a wealth of resources that opens up a whole new world for their research, said Trevor A. Dawes, associate university librarian at Washington University in St. Louis and president of the Association of College & Research Libraries. In this digital age, students and even faculty don't always start their research at the library. But tools like this will help direct them to quality vetted resources in libraries.

"The millions of books to which people can now search and in many cases access for those that are out of copyright is a real win for society, not just for libraries," Dawes said.

Much ado about book snippets

The digitized books in the Google case include mostly non-fiction books that are in the public domain, out of print or still under copyright. For books in the public domain, searchers can download a PDF of the whole book. For the rest of the books, Google only shows three snippets that include a search term and points to places where the books can be bought or borrowed. The snippets each represent an eighth of a page.

The Authors Guild and three individual authors complained that someone could piece together different snippets by using various search terms to make up a whole book and thereby hurt their sales. But Judge Chin said that would be impossible because Google leaves off one snippet on each page and blacks out one of every 10 pages.

One of the key factors the judge considered was whether Google used the material in a transformative way. And Chin decided that it did constitute a transformative work that benefited society.

"It advances the progress of the arts and sciences, while maintaining respectful consideration for the rights of authors and other creative individuals, and without adversely impacting the rights of copyright holders," Chin said in the decision.