Fair Use Takes a Victory Lap in Google Books Lawsuit

On October 16th, three federal judges on the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals issued a ruling that can be considered another decisive win for sensible copyright law.

Google Books, who was involved in a lawsuit with the Authors Guild, allegedly infringed on the plaintiffs’ copyrights through the creation of their Library Project. This ambitious venture by Google aims to construct a massive digital library of books through scanning and copying many different publications. Then, this library would become available as a public resource, as any internet user could search the database if they want to find a specific piece of literature or a snippet from a certain piece of work. After originally losing the case, the plaintiffs then filed an appeal as Google continued to claim that their new project does not infringe copyright because it is a clear example of “fair use” in this particular scenario.

To provide some background, fair use is a situation where the act of copying or reproducing copyrighted material is considered legal because it is being used for “transformative” purposes instead of purely financial gain. In most circumstances, these transformative purposes include commentary, criticism, and parody amongst others that are handled on a case-to-case basis.

Within the context of Google’s project, the court ruled that the act of converting physical publications into digital copies constituted a transformative purpose allowed under the fair use doctrine. As the court concluded in their decision, “The purpose of the copying is highly transformative, the public display of text is limited, and the revelations do not provide a significant market substitute for the protected aspects of the originals. Google’s commercial nature and profit motivation do not justify denial of fair use.”

As a result, the decision is a significant win for sensible copyright law which seeks to benefit the public at large. Re:Create, a coalition dedicated to supporting a balanced copyright system, also made a statement applauding the court’s ruling. “Since the advent of digital media and books, there have been attempts to prevent libraries from fulfilling their important role in society via digital technologies,” said Tina Pelkey, Re:Create’s spokeswoman. “[This] is a logical decision that sets an important precedent and affirms the important role libraries continue to play in the digital era.”

Ultimately, the goal of copyright is to widen public knowledge, and by extension, positively affect society as a whole. Therefore, not only is this judgment a win for Google and fair use, but it is also a crucial victory for the entire public sphere.