copyright question Dear Doc:

While searching online, I came across thousands of books – not on, but on Google! I could actually read the pages of those books because the words matched what I had searched, and most of the books were scanned right from the library. That’s cool – and really useful, but I thought that Google couldn’t just scan every book in the world because they were sued by a bunch of authors.  What gives?

A Perplexed Searcher

Dear Perp:

You’re right! In 2004 Google started the Google Books Project, working with publishers and some of the world’s largest university and public libraries. Google started to scan every page of every book it could get its hands on.  Here’s the way Google described the effort,

“At the end of the Middle Ages, in a small town in the Rhine Valley, an unassuming metalworker tinkered with a rickety wine press, metal alloys and oil-based ink. The result of his labors was an invention that took the world’s information and made it exponentially more accessible and useful. Six centuries later, we’re seeing the same kind of innovation in the way we access information. Every day, with a few keystrokes on a computer, people are doing more than simply visiting their favorite web pages. Like Gutenberg, they are expanding the frontiers of human knowledge.”

The Authors’ Guild and publishers sued almost instantly (Authors Guild v. Google, 1:05-cv-08136.) (After all, this IS America.) They claimed that Google had no right to make a digital copy of their books, and that it could only scan books that were in the public domain (books published before the mid-1920s.) That case has been in the courts since 2005. The publishers settled, allowing Google to scan away, but things remained stalled because the authors disagreed. They demanded $750 per book scanned.

It’s important to note that although Google was making a digital copy of each book, you can’t just read the book on line. Google searches show a page that is a super version of one of those old card catalog things (you know, the ones you had to learn to use in elementary school, and that libraries have thrown away now that the “card catalog” is all on computer?) Sometimes, Google shows where you can buy or borrow the book, and a page or two, but not the whole book.

Earlier this month, a federal judge ruled that Google’s scanning is “fair use” under the Copyright Law.  It may have taken him almost eight years, but this is a big thing.  Judge Denny Chin, formerly of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, dismissed the lawsuit against Google.

Judge Chin wrote in his ruling: “Google Books provides a new and efficient way for readers and researchers to find books. It makes tens of millions of books searchable by words and phrases.” Google Books has become “an essential research tool, as it helps librarians identify and find research sources, it makes the process of interlibrary lending more efficient, and it facilitates finding and checking citations.”  “Traditionally underserved populations will benefit as they gain knowledge of and access to far more books,” he wrote. “Google Books provides print-disabled individuals with the potential to search for books and read them in a format that is compatible with text enlargement software, text-to-speech screen access software, and Braille devices.”

The Authors Guild said it is “disappointed” in Chin’s decision and plans to appeal it.

“This case presents a fundamental challenge to copyright that merits review by a higher court,” Paul Aiken, the group’s executive director, said in a statement. “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 the fair use defense.”

Bottom line: the lawyers will continue to make money, and you will have to wait a while longer to see if Google will be permitted to scan those hundreds of millions of books you have never read.  Hang in there.

Have a question about what you’re legally permitted to copy, or any other intellectual property issue? Ask one of the attorneys at LW&H – they dream about this stuff (and that’s a really creepy thing.)

The “Doc”

— Lawrence A. Husick, Esq.