Google Books case tests the limits of copyright law

The Authors Guild is seeking more than $2 billion in damages from Google Books – which may make this one of the most expensive copyright damages cases in litigation history.

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    Google says it has permission to copy the works in question through fair use, while the Authors Guild says Google's use of books is purely financial and so not covered by fair use.
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It’s the $2 billion question. What are 2.7 million copyrighted books – books that Google allegedly scanned without permission – worth?

Authors suing Google over the copyright infringement of their books think it’s $750 for each book the Internet giant copied, distributed, or displayed, and have asked a federal judge to force Google to pay up.

In its filing made public Friday, the Authors Guild claimed Google’s digitization project does not constitute “fair use” under copyright law and is therefore seeking $750 in copyright damages per allegedly copyrighted work, for a grand total of more than $2 billion – potentially making this one of the most expensive copyright damages cases in litigation history.

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And that’s only the latest turn in a long, complex, and controversial case.

The case began in 2004 with Google’s digitization project in which the Internet giant began copying millions of books per an agreement with several university libraries, including those at Harvard University, Oxford University, and Stanford University. Google’s plan was to make “snippets” of the books available online via its search engine and said some 20 million books have been scanned since the 2004 agreement.

But, as Wired.com elegantly explains, the books were scanned without the rights holders’ permission and Google was sued for copyright infringement by individual writers, publishers, and the Authors Guild. The lengthy litigation resulted in a settlement last year that would have allowed Google to continue scanning copyrighted books, sell them on the Internet, and allow 20 percent of the text of each work to display in a search. Rights holders would have gotten 67 percent of the revenues, with Google taking the remainder, according the proposed settlement.

But the settlement also allowed Google to continue scanning and selling millions of so-called orphaned works, titles whose rights holder could not be located. US District Judge Denny Chin rejected the proposed settlement because, he said, the deal on orphaned works went too far. Congress, not he, should “establish a mechanism for exploiting unclaimed books,” he said, according to Wired.com.

Thanks to Judge Chin’s rejection of the proposed settlement, the fight is on once again, forcing Chin to rule upon the limits of copyright law.

In its latest filing, the Authors Guild said Google’s actions violate copyright infringement. “Google’s unauthorized uses are for a commercial purpose; involve verbatim copying, distribution, and display of protected expression; are not ‘transformative’; and, if they became widespread, would adversely affect actual and potential markets for copyrighted books,” the guild wrote in its filing.

“Books exist to read,” Google countered, saying it doesn’t need permission to copy the works, make them searchable, or provide excerpts.

“Google made digital copies of books in order to create a searchable index linking each word found in any book to all books in which that word appears. That index provides a wealth of new information, allowing a user to find every book monitoring a particular topic or using a particular phrase together with up to three short snippets of text showing the context in which that term appears,” Google wrote in a response to the judge.

In an emailed statement to Reuters, it added, "We believe Google Books constitutes fair use by allowing users to identify interesting books and find ways to borrow or buy those books, much like a card catalog for the digital age.”

Fair use is sometimes used as a defense to copyright infringement, allowing limited copying of works for purposes including commentary, criticism, teaching, or research.

The guild says Google’s purpose is purely financial and therefore not covered by fair use.

And so the Google Books case goes on, with a hearing scheduled for next month. It’s a landmark case that’s testing the limits of copyright law and has everyone in the publishing and tech worlds eager to see the outcome.

Husna Haq is a Monitor correspondent.

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