The world of fair use and eBooks is about to change–for the better. In 2004, Google began a project to scan and publish “snippets” (small portions) of thousands and thousands of books online to form an online library. This project was years in the making, but was indefinitely postponed by a lawsuit from the Authors Guild over copyright and infringement claims in 2005. The litigation was initially dismissed in 2013, which resulted in an appeal from the Author’s Guild.

Photo by Annie Holleran

Photo by Annie Holleran

The 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New York sided with Google and, as a result, fair use.

Fair Use Definition

Fair use is defined, in U.S. copyright law, as the doctrine that holds that brief excerpts of copyright material may, under certain circumstances, be quoted word-for-word, for certain purposes, without the need for permission from or payment to the copyright holder.

Avoiding Infringement

The biggest hurdle for this project was finding a way to move forward in a way that avoid copyright infringement. In fact, Google’s parent company, Alphabet Inc., argued that their project would actually boost book sales and benefit the authors by increasing access and “searchability” for the texts.

So why is Google able to move forward with this project without fear of copyright? There are actually a number of reasons:

  1. Transformativeness”: Judge Pierre Leval, an authority on copyright and fair use, argues that a use that has a new and different purpose from the original is more likely to be fair. That is, the reasoning behind the project should be different than the original. Google’s justification for the project is this: “to provide otherwise unavailable information to the public.”
  2. Snippets”: This project is not intending to scan and release whole books online for free. Google is planning on scanning and posting relevant portions of books in order to give readers context, but not so much as to infringe upon the rights of the authors. These scanned snippets will appear when users search for them, or relevant items. Google spokesman Aaron Stein explained the project as a “card catalog for the digital age.”
  3. The Court’s Idea of “Copyright”: The court defines copyright’s purpose explicitly:

The ultimate goal of copyright is to expand public knowledge and understanding, which copyright seeks to achieve by giving potential creators exclusive control over copying of their works, thus giving them a financial incentive to create informative, intellectually enriching works for public consumption…Thus, while authors are undoubtedly important intended beneficiaries of copyright, the ultimate, primary intended beneficiary is the public, whose access to knowledge copyright seeks to advance by providing rewards for authorship.

Goals in Line with Fair Use

Fortunately for Alphabet Inc. and Google, this idea of copyright fell right in line with their project’s goals, and so allows them to operate under the umbrella of “fair use,” despite their commercial/corporate nature.

Photo from

Photo from

Though the Authors’ Guild is not done with the case just yet (they’ve said that they will seek review on the ruling with the Supreme Court), for now, Google can put a great big “W” in their column. Fortunately, those of us in the public domain can share in the win with fair use.

I first heard about this issue from this recently published article, and did some further research into to case on my own. I eventually stumbled upon a recent article from Electronic Frontier Foundationand another article published around the time of the appeal by Library Journal. If you’d like to research the case yourself, you can look up “Authors Guild v. Google Inc, 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, No. 13-4829.”

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