Google Books is Deemed “Fair Use”

By Ivan Michultka-Calel

The Second Circuit Court in New York has ruled once again and this time in favor of everyone’s favorite search engine, Google, just as the lower Federal District Court did.   The dispute arose when a group of authors believed their copyrights had been infringed and so the Authors Guild sued after Google, with the help of libraries all over, began to scan and upload to their data base and website over what is now over 20 million books, and available for anyone to access.  However, users do not have access to read the entire book, unless the book is already in the public domain, only short, selected, portions of the book.  Authors and publishers also have the option of “opting out” of the “snippets” if they so choose.  If you look on Google Books now, most of the more famous well known books don’t have a single word available to read.

These features of Google Books played an important role in the Courts decision in siding with “fair use” in this context.   Judge Pierre Leval stressed the public policy of the copyright laws upholding the legality of Google Books, saying its “goal is to expand public knowledge.”  While copyright does incentive authors to create, the “ultimate primary beneficiary is the public.”   Furthermore, Google was not directly monetizing the digital copies of the books on the search engine.  There is no sale of these books on the site, rather as the ruling states that the purpose of the site “is to make available significant information about those books, permitting a searcher to identify those that contain a word or term of interest.”  Features of the site allow users to discover the “frequency of usage of selected words” in published books in “different historical periods.”

It was these functions of the site that made Judge Leval call the use of these copyrighted works “quintessentially transformative.”  Therefore, because Google has transformed the works enough to qualify as a “fair use” under the Copyright Act of 1976, they did not infringe on the copyright of the authors.  An interesting ruling comes out of this case especially under a doctrine that has yielded different outcomes and now provides for a clearer standard.  Even Leval recognized that this case pushes the “boundaries” of the doctrine.  What is certain is that this is an important decision for the public policy behind the fair use doctrine, as the case turned on what Judge Leval called a greater good of the public.  Researchers, teachers, students, authors, and everyone can search and read books from all over the world in a way that before would have never been possible.

While the authors may wants to appeal the case again, the future of this case rests in the hands of the Supreme Court, who has the sole authority to elect which cases will be heard in front of it.  However, it may never reach the steps of the Supreme Court.

You can read the entire decision on uscourt.gov’s website here: http://www.ca2.uscourts.gov/decisions/isysquery/b3f81bc4-3798-476e-81c0-23db25f3b301/1/doc/13-4829_opn.pdf

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