Fair Use Triumphs as US Supreme Court Rejects Challenge to Google Book-Scanning Project

4229965852_5e6eb45b84_bThe decade-old lawsuit over Google’s effort to scan library books and display snippets in search results came to an end this week.

The US Supreme Court on Monday declined to hear a challenge by a group of authors who contended that Google’s massive effort to scan millions of books for an online library violates copyright law. The Authors Guild and several individual writers had argued that the project, known as Google Books, illegally deprives them of revenue.

The high court disagreed, and instead left in place an October 2015 ruling by the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New York in favor of Google. A unanimous three-judge appeals court panel said the case “tests the boundaries of fair use,” but found Google’s practices were ultimately allowed under the law.

The individual plaintiffs who filed the proposed class action against Google included former New York Yankees pitcher Jim Bouton, who wrote the acclaimed memoir “Ball Four.” Several prominent writers, including novelist and poet Margaret Atwood and lyricist and composer Stephen Sondheim, signed on to a friend-of-the-court brief backing the Authors Guild.

The authors sued Google, whose parent company is Alphabet Inc, in 2005, a year after the project was launched. A lower court dismissed the litigation in 2013, prompting the authors’ appeal. Google argued that the effort would actually boost book sales by making it easier for readers to find works, while introducing them to books they might not otherwise have seen.

The company made digital copies of more than 20 million books, according to court papers. Some publishers agreed to allow Google to copy their works, while others used the tools provided by Google to opt their books out of the program.

Google Books allows users to search the content of the books and displays excerpts that show the relevant search results. Google says in court papers the service “gives readers a dramatically new way to find books of interest” and lets people know where they can buy them. Users cannot read “any substantial portion of any book,” Google said.

Google had said it could have faced billions of dollars in potential damages if the authors had prevailed.

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This is great news for copyright law, and for readers everywhere.

For one thing, the public would have lost out in a The Authors Guild victory. Google has shown that they will not pay this type of fee, and so they would remove books from their servers rather than license them. No one would gain from that, not authors, the public, or researchers.

But more importantly, this is great news for copyright law. The US Supreme Court has effectively declared that books are not special snowflakes; the same rules apply to books as apply to websites and other types of online content.

In spite of what The Authors Guild might have wished, that was the logical conclusion.

images by colindunn, bert_m_b


  1. Frank18 April, 2016

    This is great. Google Book’s search of book’s text is useful sometimes to learn things and find source material.

  2. Al the Great and Powerful18 April, 2016

    “But more importantly, this is great news for copyright law. The US Supreme Court has effectively declared that books are not special snowflakes; the same rules apply to books as apply to websites and other types of online content.”

    THIS! I salute authors everywhere, but books are not special, deserving special laws.

  3. Will O'Neil18 April, 2016

    Speaking both as an author and a user of Google Books, I’m glad. I never did understand what all the hate was about, really.

    Personally, I’ve bought some books as a result of looking them up on Google Books. Others I’ve decided not to, but I cannot recall an instance in which what I found on Google Books persuaded me not to buy a book I might otherwise have purchased. I’ve been perfectly willing to have my own books on Google Books, just as on Amazon’s “Look Inside” service.

    1. Nate Hoffelder18 April, 2016

      The Authors Guild doesn’t see it that same way.

  4. Will O'Neil18 April, 2016

    I long ago let my Author’s Guild membership lapse and have non inclination to reestablish it. They have a very different concept of authorship and publishing.

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