Court Rejects Google Book Scanning Settlement With The Authors Guild

from the back-to-square-one dept

Well, well, well. For many years there's been quite the back and forth about Google's book scanning project. As you may recall, years back, Google started scanning various books to create what was effectively a giant online card catalog, making it much easier to research and find useful books. Contrary to what some have claimed, it did not make it easy to read entire books online. In fact, publishers began realizing that Google's book search helped sales by helping people find their books, and directing them to where those books could be bought. But, still, the rather backwards looking Authors Guild couldn't resist and sued. It seemed like Google had an incredibly strong fair use argument, especially if you take into account the original intent and purpose of copyright law, being a statute to increase the spread of knowledge.

Unfortunately, after a few years of fighting back and forth, Google caved, with a "settlement" that was hardly a "settlement" at all, but rather a way for Google to effectively lock up the online book scanning business all to itself. I thought this was disappointing for any number of reasons, and many people agreed, leading Google and the Authors Guild to scrap the original settlement for a new one that was only slightly more reasonable. It still seemed more like a business deal, rather than a settlement, and still ignored the key fair use questions raised by the lawsuit.

Today, however, a district court judge has rejected the settlement. The full ruling by Judge Danny Chin is embedded below, but the short version is that the settlement was rejected because, as with the original settlement, this was more of a business deal in which Google benefits at the expense of competitors. That part, I'm fine with. Where I'm more troubled is that Chin claims that this settlement "rewards" Google "for engaging in wholesale copying of copyrighted works without permission."

The ruling does acknowledge the many, many benefits of Google's book scanning project:
The benefits of Google's book project are many. Books will become more accessible. Libraries, schools, researchers, and disadvantaged populations will gain access to far more books. Digitization will facilitate the conversion of books to Braille and audio formats, increasing access for individuals with disabilities. Authors and publishers will benefit as well, as new audiences will be generated and new sources of income created. Older books -- particularly out-of-print books, many of which are falling apart buried in library stacks -- will be preserved and given new life.
I agree with the decision to dump the settlement. It seemed clear that the settlement goes way beyond the issues in the case to create a separate right that perhaps the Authors Guild had no right to negotiate over. And that seems to be the key concern by the judge. The judge suggests, if anything, that Congress is the proper party to step in here and define the rights over these kinds of books.

The judge does acknowledge the fair use argument, but really only to point out that it was the crux of the lawsuit, but is more or less ignored by the settlement. He does seem to suggest that the fair use defense wouldn't fly here, but doesn't go into any thorough analysis. I'm a bit disappointed by that, because I still think that the fair use claim here was strong, and claiming that this was clear infringement is misleading and will be a problem down the road. In fact, the analysis on the copyright issues reaches somewhat troubling depths, suggesting that it found claims from authors of moral rights to their works -- which are not recognized in the US -- persuasive, in arguing that the scanning was infringement.

In the end, rejecting the settlement was probably the right move, but I'm troubled by the suggestion that the scanning itself was clearly infringement, and the skipping over of fair use as an important issue here, compounded by the acceptance of moral claims from authors that they "don't want" someone digitizing "their" works.
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Filed Under: book scanning, copyright, fair use, settlement
Companies: authors guild, google

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  1. icon
    Jesse (profile), 23 Mar 2011 @ 12:09am

    Why is it fair use for TurnItIn to archive copies of other peoples work, but Google can't? It's because students own the copyrights with TurnItIn, and legacy book publishers own the copyrights in the case of Google.

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