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Google Books case: digitizing 'snippets' of text is ruled 'fair use'

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(Read caption) Google Books was launched in 2004.

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In what is widely seen as a defeat for authors and publishers, a federal judge today dismissed a copyright infringement lawsuit that the Authors Guild brought against Google for its Google Books project.

With his dismissal of the suit, US Circuit Judge Denny Chin affirmed Google’s argument that scanning more than 20 million books and making “snippets” of text available online constituted “fair use” under US copyright law, according to Reuters.

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“In my view, Google Books provides significant public benefits,” Judge Chin wrote in his decision, citing research and access benefits to students, teachers, librarians, scholars, and underserved populations, while maintaining “respectful consideration” for author’s rights.

“This is a big win for Google, and it blesses other search results that Google displays, such as news or images,” James Grimmelmann, a University of Maryland intellectual property law professor, told Reuters. “It is also a good ruling for libraries and researchers, because the opinion recognizes the public benefit of making books available.”

In 2004, Google launched its Google Books project after agreeing with several major research libraries and universities – including Harvard University, Oxford University, Stanford University, and the New York Public Library – to digitize current and out-of-print works.

In 2005, a coalition of authors and publishers represented by the Authors Guild launched a lawsuit against Google for copyright infringement. 

In March 2011, Judge Chin rejected a proposed $125 million settlement between the Authors Guild and Google. Since then Google Books has digitized and indexed millions of books without copyright holders’ permission.

In his ruling, Judge Chin said Google’s digitization project was a transformative use of copyrighted books in that it gave books a new purpose or character, thereby making it legal under copyright’s fair use doctrine.

The Authors Guild says it plans to appeal the ruling.

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“Google made unauthorized digital editions of nearly all of the world's valuable copyright-protected literature and profits from displaying those works,” Authors Guild Executive Director Paul Aiken said. "Such mass digitization and exploitation far exceeds the bounds of the fair use defense."

For now, however, the ruling paves the way for Google to continue expanding its online library and, perhaps more importantly, expands fair use rights and sets a precedent for future projects. As the Washington Post writes, “Many innovative media technologies involve aggregating or indexing copyrighted content. Today's ruling is the clearest statement yet that such projects fall on the right side of the fair use line.”

Husna Haq is a Monitor correspondent.