Google Books wins lawsuit: Searching is transformative

Google

Google

After a nearly ten year legal battle, Google is celebrating a federal court decision this week. U.S. Circuit Judge Denny Chin ruled yesterday that Google’s massive book-scanning project -- known, appropriately, as Google Books -- does not violate copyright law. It’s a blow to authors who say Google is unfairly profiting from their work, but Google isn’t the only winner in this case.

Robert Darnton runs the library at Harvard -- one of the first universities to team up with Google to digitize its books. He says the ruling is a win for research.

“When I heard it, I jumped for joy,” Darnton says.

Google’s repository of more than 20 million books makes it possible to search billions of words to track language and ideas over time, Darnton says. It’s known as text mining. Researchers can also stumble on books they otherwise wouldn’t know about. Users view snippets of text on the site, and Google tells them where they can buy or borrow the whole thing.

“I believe that this will benefit the very authors who were suing Google,” Darnton says, “because it will actually make it possible for Google to function as a kind of marketing operation.”

True, Google can make money by selling those books itself, or by linking to sites like Amazon. But that’s not where the real money is, says Forrester Research analyst James McQuivey.

“Really what Google cares about is adding up all the ways that you can spend your time on Google or Chrome or YouTube or Android, and making sure that most of your day is connected to at least some part of Google,” McQuivey says. Google then sells that information to advertisers, he says.

“It’s the cumulative knowledge about what you care about that ends up paying off big for them,” McQuivey says.

Google stopped showing ads on Google Books itself a few years ago as part of a settlement with publishers. That’s one reason the judge ruled that Google’s book-copying constituted “fair use.” The public good outweighed his concerns about commercial gain.

Google’s whole business model is built on fair use of other people’s content, says Pam Samuelson, a law professor at the University of California, Berkeley.

“What do all search engines do?” she says. “They make copies of things that they can get their hands on and index those in order to make efficient searches possible.”

In a statement, the Authors Guild’s executive director Paul Aiken disputed the “fair use” claim.

“Google made unauthorized digital editions of nearly all of the world's valuable copyright-protected literature and profits from displaying those works,” Aiken said. “In our view, such mass digitization and exploitation far exceeds the bounds of the fair use defense.”

The Guild plans to appeal.

About the author

Amy Scott is Marketplace’s education correspondent covering the K-12 and higher education beats, as well as general business and economic stories.

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