Is it copyright infringement to copy an entire book and make the copy searchable on the internet?

Is it copyright infringement to copy an entire book and make the copy searchable on the internet?

“The internet changed everything” is a popular phrase repeated with enthusiasm or lament depending on the identity of the speaker.  For people fortunate enough to possess the skills to navigate the internet with skill, the internet is a vibrant marketplace full of opportunities.   For people that do not possess the ability to adeptly navigate the internet, the internet seems like a threat to their business model.  The law, in general, is in a constant game of catch up with technology.

Authors Guild, Inc. v. Google Inc., No. 13-4829-cv (2d Cir. Oct. 16, 2015) illustrates how mature businesses feel threatened by new businesses that can wield the power of the internet.  In the Authors Guild case, Google was accused of copyright infringement by the Authors Guild.  The Authors Guild is a professional organization for writers.  The Authors Guild sued Google on behalf of its members.  Google is an internet company that produces many products that are accessible on the internet, the most popular product being an internet search engine.  Google’s internet search engine indexes vast quantities of data and organizes it for consumption by Google’s customers.

The dispute between the Authors Guild and Google began when Google created a partnership with libraries to digitize the books in the library.  Google digitized more than twenty-million books and made the digital copies available to its library partners.  Google also integrated snippets of the digitized books into search engine results.  The Authors Guild filed suit on behalf of its members because neither Google nor the libraries paid the authors of the book for the right to make copies of the books.  The Authors Guild claimed Google was committing copyright infringement, Google its actions were a fair use of the copyrighted works.

The United States District Court for the Southern District of New York held that Google’s digitization and use of the copyrighted works was fair use and granted summary judgment in Google’s favor.  The Authors Guild appealed the ruling to the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. The Second Circuit agreed with the district court’s ruling that Google’s digitization and subsequent use of the copyrighted works was fair use. In concluding that Google’s use was transformative, the circuit court found that “Google’s making of a digital copy to provide a search function . . . augments public knowledge by making available information about plaintiffs’ books without providing the public with a substantial substitute for matter protected by the plaintiffs’ copyright interests in the original works or derivatives of them.”

The Second Circuit held that the “amount and substantiality” of the works used, did not prevent a finding of fair use because Google limited the amount of text it displayed to users in search engine results. Regarding the Google Books project’s potential to impact the market for or value of the copyrighted works, the circuit court held that despite the search function’s potential to cause “some loss of sales” the fact that the snippet search results were so short and the “cumbersome, disjointed, and incomplete nature of the aggregation of snippets made available through snippet view” make it unlikely that Google’s use could “provide a significant substitute for the purchase of the author’s book.”

To concisely restate the court’s ruling: Google’s use of copyrighted works is fair use even though the entire work is copied because the search function benefits the public and the copy is a poor substitute for the original work.

Copyright law and fair use is a complex subject.  If you have more questions about copyright law you should discuss them with an experienced copyright attorney.