Google has dodged a major legal challenge to a controversial but popular feature that makes millions of books available online. A federal judge today said the Google Books program does not violate the copyright privileges of authors.
Google Books uses high-tech scanning technology to convert books to digital format, and then posts versions of the works online. Most of the time, Google makes a book available without getting permission from or compensating its author.
The case has bounced around the court system since 2005, when the Author’s Guild and others sued Google over its digital text program. The parties came close to settling in 2011, but a judge concerned that it would grant Google a monopoly in the area threw out the deal.
U.S Circuit Court Judge Denny Chin issued his decision rejecting the copyright claim against Google this morning, finding the digital books program was “fair use.”
The fair use defense allows the use of copyrighted works for criticism, news reporting, scholarship, research, and other areas that represent a public benefit rather than a commercial exploitation. Judge Chin explained that fair use is good public policy because it “provides sufficient protection to authors and inventors to stimulate creative activity, while at the same time permitting others to utilize protected works to advance the progress of the arts and sciences.”
Judge Chin highlighted several factors he believed warranted granting the defense, including:
1) Google’s use is transformative, taking physical copies of books and converting them to fully indexed, and searchable digital documents.
2) The digital books do not supercede or supplant the original works. The online copies are usually limited “snippets” and do not allow users to read a book cover-to-cover.
3) Google receives limited commercial benefit from the use. It does not sell ads or charge a fee to use the feature.
The judge found that overall, Google Books is an important research tool that expands access to knowledge and helps preserve the texts themselves.
The decision paves the way for Google to move forward with its program, with a potential roadblock in the future if Author’s Guild decides to appeal. However, with 8 years and millions of dollars in legal fees already spent, such a move may not be in order.