Google Wins Fair Use Victory in Book Scanning Battle

chinThe long-running Google Books saga has, like so many literary epics, concluded with a shock ending. A federal court has ruled that most of the legal debates of the past nine years have proven irrelevant because the project itself is covered by fair use provisions in copyright law.

Back in 2004, Google announced a project to scan as many books as possible and make the content searchable in the same way as web pages. That led to lawsuits from the Authors Guild and Association of American Publishers who argued that book creators had neither given permission nor been fairly compensated for having their content used in this way.

Eventually the two sides made a comprehensive deal to settle their differences, with Google ready to pay around $125 million. The problem was that they wanted the deal to apply to all books, no matter their author. In particular, the deal would have given Google complete rights to use “orphan books”, those which are in copyright but where the copyright holder either isn’t known or can’t be found.

The court hearing the original lawsuit refused to back the settlement, reasoning that it wasn’t legally viable to make such a deal and have it be binding on third parties. The judge noted that giving legal force to the orphan books section of the settlement would amount to changing copyright law, something that only Congress should do.

With settlements off the table, the Association of American Publishers decided to make a narrower deal which gives publishers complete control over whether or not they choose to let Google scan their books.

The Authors Guild pressed on with the lawsuit but Judge Denny Chin (pictured) surprisingly dismissed the entire case this week. He ruled in favor of Google’s argument that the way Google scans books and then makes a small section available to web users when they search for a term that appears in that section is not a violation of copyright. He said Google’s action was classed as fair use because it was not simply a case of wholesale copying, but rather added value to the original information.

In his ruling, quoted by TIME, Chin said of the project that:

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 preserves books, in particular out-of-print and old books that have been forgotten in the bowels of libraries, and it gives them new life. It facilitates access to books for print-disabled and remote or underserved populations. It generates new audiences and creates new sources of income for authors and publishers. Indeed, all society benefits.

Google’s finance department will be particularly happy with the ruling: although the Authors Guild was seeking only the minimum penalty of $750 for each copyright violation, the sheer number of books Google has scanned means it could theoretically have been on the hook for $15 billion.

The ruling only means Google can use its model of scanning books, creating a searchable index and making relevant “snippets” available to the user. It doesn’t give it any rights to show or sell books in full.

Of course, even the final instalment of this saga may have an epilogue: The Authors Guild is widely expected to appeal the ruling.