The decade-long legal battle over Google’s massive book scanning project is finally over, and it’s a huge win for libraries and fair use. On Monday, the Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal by the Author’s Guild, which had argued that Google’s scanning of millions of books was an infringement of copyright on a grand scale. The Supreme Court’s decision means that the Second Circuit case holding that Google’s creation of a database including millions of digital books is fair use still stands. The appeals court explained how its fair use rationale aligns with the very purpose of copyright law: “[W]hile 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.”
Google Books gives readers and internet users the world over access to millions of works that had previously been hidden away in the archives of our most elite universities. As a Google representative said in a statement, “The product acts like a card catalog for the digital age by giving people a new way to find and buy books while at the same time advancing the interests of authors.”
Google began scanning books in partnership with a group of university libraries in 2004. In 2005, author and publisher groups filed a class action lawsuit to put a stop to the project. The parties agreed to settle the lawsuit in a manner that would have forever changed the legal landscape around book rights. The District Court judge rejected the settlement in 2011, based on concerns about competition, access, and fairness, and so litigation over the core question of fair use resumed.
Judge Chin, Judge Leval, and the Supreme Court all made the right decisions along the long and winding path to Google’s victory. Libraries around the country are now free to rely on fair use as they determine how to manage their own digitization projects–encouraging innovation and increasing our access to human knowledge.