Google Books Wins Fair Use Exception

Google has won an important copyright challenge, Inside Higher Ed reports:

Google’s practice of scanning copyrighted works to turn them into digital resources has once again been ruled a “transformative” example of fair use. A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit on Friday released its opinion in Authors Guild v. Google, delivering a 3-0 win for defendant.

Writing for a unanimous court, Judge Pierre N. Leval said “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 without providing the public with a substantial substitute for matter protected by the plaintiffs’ copyright interests in the original works or derivatives of them.”

Legal experts said the ruling leaves little room for further litigation. James Grimmelmann, professor of law at the University of Maryland at Baltimore, said on Twitter that “It’s hard to see this suit as anything but a debacle for the Authors Guild.”

This strikes me as reasonable.

First, there is indeed a “transformative” act here. I’ve been known to use Google to search the text of books that I already own, because it’s simply easier to have a computer find it than scanning myself.

Second, the court is right on the “substantial substitute” angle. Aside perhaps from the absurdly priced university press books, I can’t imagine the case where I’d want to read more than a few pages of a scanned book vice finding a cheap copy on Amazon. And, in most cases where the book is too expensive to justify adding it to my personal library, I’d just get the book through interlibrary loan.

FILED UNDER: Education, Law and the Courts, Quick Takes
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. DrDaveT says:

    I can’t imagine the case where I’d want to read more than a few pages of a scanned book vice finding a cheap copy on Amazon. And, in most cases where the book is too expensive to justify adding it to my personal library, I’d just get the book through interlibrary loan.

    Me too — but then, you and I are both privileged (yes, that word again) with respect to both our financial resources and our access to library services. (And even I, living in a wealthy corner of the country, have to pay $5 per request for interlibrary loans, making them useful only for rare and expensive volumes.)

    This is not about you or me. The economics of the situation are driven by the millions (billions?) of people who don’t share our privileges, but do have a phone and occasional internet access.

    I’m not arguing that this ruling was wrong, in any legal sense. I’m just saying that your dismissal of how much this changes things for many many people is totally unwarranted.

  2. James Joyner says:

    @DrDaveT: Sure, I get that having both an Amazon Prime membership and sufficient disposable income that I can drop $4.01 to $12.01 for a hardcover book is not a situation that everyone is in. But I wonder how many people who can’t afford books crave them sufficiently that they’re willing to read them on Google Books—which, incidentally, almost always skips multiple pages. I mean, public libraries have plenty of books and most university libraries will loan books for free as well.

  3. DrDaveT says:

    But I wonder how many people who can’t afford books crave them sufficiently that they’re willing to read them on Google Books—which, incidentally, almost always skips multiple pages. I mean, public libraries have plenty of books and most university libraries will loan books for free as well.

    You’re still thinking locally. Ubiquitous public libraries and generous university libraries are features of the US and a few other first-world countries. Google is thinking about the population of internet users, most of whom are not in the US.

    (Also, I’ve been assuming that the missing pages thing has to do with copyright and fair use restrictions — which is now no longer an issue.)