Why this Google Books Ruling Is Important
Wednesday, November 20, 2013 - 03:08 PM
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?