Google, Inc. can finally move forward with its digital book project, the Google Library, which allows users to search and preview excerpts from books online. The Second Circuit Court of Appeals recently ruled that the project constitutes “fair use” under copyright law.

The Digital Book Project

So how does it work? Starting in 2004, Google scanned more than 20 million books. The search giant displays 20 percent of the text in an online query and then allows consumers to purchase the entire book through its online marketplace, Google Play. While the idea is revolutionary, it is also controversial. As a result, Google’s ambitious book project has been mired in delays, largely due to legal concerns regarding potential copyright infringement. Authors, publishers and artists have filed numerous lawsuits allege that the project constitutes a large-scale violation of U.S. copyright law. Meanwhile, Google maintains that its efforts are protected by fair use.

The Fair Use Doctrine

Under U.S. copyright law, the unauthorized use of a copyrighted work for purposes such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching (including multiple copies for classroom use), scholarship, or research is not considered infringement. The rationale behind the fair use doctrine is that society can often benefit from the unauthorized use of copyrighted materials when the purpose of the use is to educate or inform the public. To determine whether the doctrine should apply, courts generally consider the following factors:
  • The purpose and character of the use, including whether such use is of a commercial nature or is for nonprofit educational purposes;
  • The nature of the copyrighted work;
  • The amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole; and
  • The effect of the use upon the potential market for or value of the copyrighted work.

 The Court’s Decision

In its suit, the Authors Guild, a writers’ organization, argued the Google Library Project is “quintessentially commercial in nature.” However, the Second Circuit rejected the argument, upholding the district court’s dismissal of the copyright infringement suit. In its decision, the federal appeals court held that the Google Library Project is “incredibly transformative,” noting the significant benefits for society. With regard to providing a snippet of each book, the Second Circuit found that it “adds important value to the basic transformative search function” by being  “designed to show the searcher just enough context… to help her evaluate whether the book falls within the scope of her interest (without revealing so much as to threaten the author’s copyright interests).” While the decision is a clear victory for Google, the U.S. Supreme Court could have the final say.