Copyright Lawsuit Challenging Google’s Book Digitizing Program Dismissed Under Fair Use Doctrine

At long last, Google has won. Specifically, Google has won the right to continue providing snippets of over 20 million books digitized from the collections of top public universities and libraries through its Google Books Library Project.

Avid readers and researchers, most notably librarians and other scholars, are hailing the decision as an important step towards optimizing research and availability to massive amounts of important literary material, a good portion of which was gathering dust before Google decided to digitize it. The Google Books Library Project makes the digitized books searchable online, whereby an interested party can find a snippet of a book, decide from that snippet if they wish to make a purchase, and if so follow the convenient links provided by Google to purchase it. To the lay man, the benefits likely seem to outweigh the drawbacks. The Authors Guild disagrees.

In 2005, Google was sued in a class-action lawsuit headed by The Authors Guild, an organization which “provides legal assistance and a broad range of web services to its members…[such as] copyright protection, fair contracts, and free expression,” according to its website. The Authors Guild claimed in their initial complaint, “By reproducing for itself a copy of those works that are not in the public domain (the ‘Works’), Google is engaging in massive copyright infringement.” Further, “It has infringed, and continues to infringe the electronic rights of the copyright holders of those works.”

The Circuit Judge of the Southern District of New York in charge of the lawsuit, Denny Chin, did not share that sentiment, citing the doctrine of fair use under § 107 of the Copyright Act. In his decision, Judge Chin decisively stated that “Google Books provides significant public benefits.” Moreover, “It advances the progress of the arts and sciences, while maintaining respectful consideration for the rights of authors and other creative individuals.” As a result, he granted summary judgment in favor of Google, dismissing the case. The full decision can be found here. Unsurprisingly, The Authors Guild has stated their intention to appeal the decision.

In deciding to apply the fair use doctrine to a copyright case, a judge must consider four factors: the purpose, nature, amount used, and effect of using the copyrighted material. Thereafter, the judge must weigh those factors together and come to a decision.

Judge Chin found the first and fourth factors most pertinent in his decision to apply the fair use doctrine. With respect to the purpose of the use, Judge Chin stated, “Google does, of course, benefit commercially in the sense that users are drawn to the Google websites by the ability to search Google Books. While this is a consideration to be acknowledged in weighing all the factors, even assuming Google’s principal motivation is profit, the fact is that Google Books serves several important educational purposes.” And with reference to the fourth factor, the effect of using the copyrighted material, Judge Chin was equally in favor of Google’s argument, affirming that “there can be no doubt but that Google Books improves book sales,…[since it] provides convenient links to booksellers.”

It will be interesting to see in the coming months and years how, if at all, this decision expands the scope of the fair use doctrine.

Remick Stahl
Law Clerk at