Google's book scanning is 'fair use,' judge rules

In a landmark copyright case, a judge has ruled Google's massive book scanning project for its search engine fair use.

Google has won a landmark court case in the U.S., after a judge ruled that the company's massive book-scanning project -- which allows users of its search engine to find snippets of copyrighted work without author permission -- is legal under fair use terms.

On Thursday, the eight-year long lawsuit came to an abrupt end, as New York federal court judge Denny Chin ruled (.pdf) that book scanning practices conducted by the tech giant as part of its plans to scan and index every text on the globe -- under the term "Google Books" -- is legal.


Under "fair use" copyright legislation, extracts of copyrighted works -- such as books or songs -- can be used as long as the snipped is not directly used for commercial purposes, the work is available to the public, only a portion is in use rather than a whole work, and "fair use" does not impact badly on the commercial value of an item.

According to the Financial Times, over 20 million books have been scanned and indexed as part of the project, launched by co-founder Larry Page in 2004.

Four years after its launch, the U.S. Authors Guild launched a lawsuit against the firm, which resulted in a $125 million settlement agreement to resolve a number of complaints by both authors and publishers. Such a settlement was believed to ignore the rights of those in the book industry outside of the United States, however, and so the judge later quashed the deal completely.

Critics argue that Google profits from scanning and releasing copyright material as consumers use the company's search engine to research titles, which displays advertisements. Complainants argued that the general public was less likely to make a purchase if they could extract part of a text for free online, whereas Google retorted that it would be highly unlikely -- and extremely time consuming -- for a user to be able to compile enough extracts of a book from the web to make a full purchase pointless.

In addition, as noted by the judge, Google takes steps to stop users from seeing all snippets of a copyrighted work, and according to Chin, being able to view extracts of a book in today's world was likely to increase book sales -- rather than lower them. Within his ruling, Chin said:

"In my view, Google Books provides significant public benefits. 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. It has become an invaluable research tool that permits students, teachers,librarians, and others to more efficiently identify and locate books.

It generates new audiences and creates new sources of income for authors and publishers. Indeed, all society benefits."

Google welcomed the judge's ruling. However, executive director of the U.S. Authors Guild Paul Aiken said a statement:

"We disagree with and are disappointed by the court’s decision today. This case presents a fundamental challenge to copyright that merits review by a higher court. Google made unauthorized digital editions of nearly all of the world's valuable copyright-protected literature and profits from displaying those works. In our view, such mass digitization and exploitation far exceeds the bounds of fair use defense.”

The U.S. Author's Guild plans to appeal the decision.