Why this Google Books Ruling Is Important

Wednesday, November 20, 2013 - 03:08 PM

(Liza Daly/flickr)

Being the nerdier half of the TLDR boys, I'll totally cop to having an interest in the arcane complexities of the internet. Not just the technical stuff and the cultural stuff, but also the legal stuff.

So when I read about Google's win against the Author's Guild in a lawsuit over book scanning last week, I thought it was a big deal. And then PJ was all "Oh, duh. I don't get why it's a big deal. Write an article about it." Fine, PJ. Fine.

The deal is that the Google Books project has spent years laboriously scanning books so that they'll be searchable on the web. Google Books allows you to search the text within the book, and it will show you 1/8th of a page around your search results, giving you the general context around the text you were looking for. It's like a more powerful version of a card catalog that you don't have to go to the library to use.

The Author's Guild, an industry advocacy group, sued Google eight years ago saying that the Google Books project was infringing author copyrights. Google countered by saying that only showing 1/8th of a page isn't the same as giving a book away, and that the Google Books project satisfied the criteria outline in the fair use doctrine. If it lost, Google would have been on the hook for close to $3 billion.

I talked to the very smart and thoughtful James Grimmelman, who told me that even while the Google Books lawsuit was going on, the project demonstrated its usefulness. Grimmelmann said that behind Wikipedia, Google Books is the most used method for students looking for information. I think we can all agree that Google Books has a much higher quality of information, so this win is good in that respect. 

More than that, Google now has over 20 million books scanned, and the ruling very clearly states that this information can be used for data mining. So now, this entire trove of millions of books is available for algorithmic analysis. Wanna know about the usage of the term "potrzebie" in literature over time? Want to see the frequency of male or female pronouns in books in 1962? All of this has explicitly been given the green light with this ruling.

Lastly, this ruling will embolden other institutions - libraries, non-profits, etc - to enact similar projects. Google is a powerhouse that can defend itself against a nearly decade-long lawsuit that many smaller institutions simply couldn't. While this ruling doesn't guarantee the suing is over and done with (The Author's Guild has said it would appeal), it certainly allows smaller institutions more leeway to try something like this on their own.

The internet is full of places where the lines of copyright are blurred, and where works can be exploited to the detriment of their creators. But a project like Google Books, which has baked in protections to make it nearly useless as a way to steal copyrighted material are firmly on the good side of the fair use ledger in my opinion. So I see this as a big win for information access. And that's why it's a big deal, PJ. Get it?


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Comments [4]

John Major Jenkins from Colorado

It seems to have gone unrecognized that Google books will often display a large portion of a copyrighted book. Blocks of pages will be skipped, thus apparently abiding by some "fair use" principle. Since when is making available, for free, 70% of a copyrighted book that an author labored to produce, within fair use? The decision that allows this, for each book, may be approved by the publisher. But publishers --- especially in today's publishing climate --- do not often act in the author's best interest. I'm a published author of six books since 1992; things have changed drastically since then. Other "upload" services like Scribd allowed their "members" to upload pirated PDF copies of my books, with thousands of downloads occurring. I policed that for years, and it just kept happening. Where's my royalties? Similarly, how about a partial royalty for Google making available 70% of my book? Now one of my publishers has actually partnered with Scribd, in some kind of deal that doesn't even show up on my royalty statements. These recent developments have further screwed the author, in an industry where the author was already getting the short end of the stick.

Nov. 15 2014 12:25 PM
cubekn from DC

I don't mean to get into an argument on this as I, again, am inclined to agree with you overall that accessibility is a good thing for all of us and I am certainly in no way a legal or copyright expert. And I appreciate your response to my comment.
That being said... your main point here seems to imply that the essence of a book would be the entire and complete text, meaning that individual ideas or isolated passages are not relevant enough to constitute something akin to copyright infringement. But with a lot of the books that I look up on their service, this is not really the case, for example I frequently just pick up a book for class to read the introduction or look up a single passage. Or in other words, wouldn't the very fact that Google books is so useful to us, kind of undermine the argument that what the company is doing is not really that big of a big deal?
Apart from that I just felt like your piece was a bit one-sided and that Google's interests, precisely because it is so useful and powerful, deserve and need to be critically questioned. It might look like and result in a public service but let's not forget that we are not dealing with an international public institution here, but a for-profit, private entity. Again, I'm no expert (I did not know about the 1/8th of a page thing, for example) but I instinctively felt like there is more to this story than just "more access = good thing".

Nov. 21 2013 05:04 PM

Google is profiting from making small pieces of texts searchable. They are not making the entire book searchable. Rather, they're just making 1/8th of a page available at a time. It would take a year to cobble together one complete book from Google Books, if you could do it at all. I understand the concern over copyright, but infringement should really only be things that cause the copyright holder to lose customers. I don't believe that 1/8th a page of an entire book is enough to constitute infringement. Sure, Google might make money off the project, because they make money off of nearly any eyeballs that find their way to Google's website. But they won't be making money at the expense of creators. Unless the creator's entire work appears on 1/8th of a page.

Nov. 20 2013 05:49 PM
cubekn from DC

I too use Google books and I am glad it exists. But then again, I do not write books for a living. So I would also be really interested in the other side of the argument here. Let's keep in mind that unlike Wikipedia, Google is a multinational, for-profit organization (that's what makes it so 'usefully' powerful). The baked-in copyright protection might ensure that users do not replicate the content at will, but isn't that exactly what what Google itself is doing - and profiting from? I guess what I am saying is: please write another article about it.

Nov. 20 2013 05:10 PM

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TLDR is a short podcast and blog about the internet by Meredith Haggerty. You can subscribe to the TLDR podcast here. You can follow our blog here. I tweet @manymanywords and @tldr.

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