Authors Fail in Legal Challenge to Google Books

John Lister's picture

The Supreme Court has rejected claims by authors that Google Books violates copyright. It ends a legal battle dating back 12 years.

The legal issues originally centered on Google Library, in which the company scanned millions of books that were no longer being published and made them available in full.

Later on Google used the same technology to scan books that are in print and add them to its search database alongside web pages and other forms of information. When users carry out a search that matches content in a scanned book, they can now see the relevant section as part of the search results.

2013 Settlement Survives Final Challenge

In 2008 the original legal challenge from authors and publishers led to proposed settlements from both sides and lengthy negotiations. Eventually an appeals court ruled in 2013 to force all involved to accept the most recent settlement agreed by Google. (Source:

The Authors Guild chose to pursue the case through further appeals, all of which ruled in favor of Google. Its last move was to the Supreme Court, but justices there have rejected the case out of hand.

The authors group says that not only does using content from books without permission inherently violate copyright, but that the existence of Google Books is unfairly costing them sales.

Google: No Substitute For Buying Book

Google's argument, upheld by the courts in previous cases, is that it only makes short sections of the books available to searchers, usually covering the pages immediately before and after where the relevant search terms is included. It says this isn't a substitute for buying and reading the full book.

The Authors Guild had complained that it was possible for users to see large parts of a book, either if a search term appeared frequently, or if they searched for a variety of terms. However, the appeals court estimated that even a determined searcher would only ever be able to read around one-sixth of a book. (Source:

The judges in that case noted it was possible that somebody who just wanted to check a fact might be able to find it through the Google Books extract and thus no longer need to buy the book. However, they ruled this wasn't enough to tip the balance of fair use vs copyright protection.

What's Your Opinion?

Should Google have the right to scan and use copyrighted books in this way? Does it do enough to avoid using the text unfairly? Have you ever been deterred from buying a book because you could get the information you needed via Google Books?

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Dennis Faas's picture

I remember hearing about this 12 years ago and thought it was crazy that Google would even consider doing such a thing. I thought to myself "how could that be legal?" - but access to information has changed dramatically in the last 10 to 15 years; in fact, having access to just about anything online is paramount - especially so with smartphones. In hindsight, I think what Google did was a great idea.

As stated in the article, there is a slim chance of someone gaining a substantial amount of the book through searches. In fact, I rarely ever see any references to books - usually only when I'm specifically searching for a book title does a snippet ever come up. Even so, I think seeing snippets in search results would actually generate more money for the authors due to the extra exposure.

steve1's picture

On the flip side, I *did* buy a book based on the Google Excerpt.

sqimc_6898's picture

I did buy hard copy books as a result of using Google Books as a reference source; just as I did when I searched physical libraries.

I agree with Dennis that Google Books actually give authors more exposure. While it is true that readers may not purchase a book after referring to it for a snippet, the same holds true for physical libraries.

mtjoy747_5713's picture

A friend of mine, who has Asperger's and is a bit "OCD" (obsessive) about magazines, used to hoard computer magazines etc, in his untidy flat.

We used to make the comment that he could buy a brand new computer - if he sold all his magazines, for $1 each, in some sort of book or magazine fair.

Then when his last job did not work out, and he was made redundant, he could no longer afford to BUY magazines - so he is (currently) using the Internet to download (from sites that ARE illegal) PDFs of computer magazines. He even gets the occasional 'sting' from a virus, which I thought would tell him it is wrong or at least dangerous.

I tried to explain the principle of the apple shop. If you go into an apple shop, and buy an apple, the shop can pay for the bills.

If you copy the apple, and don't buy it, the shop misses out on the money that WOULD have been generated by the sale.

Even his email address, as a search term in Google, brings up his CV - and he has NOT been able to get the website to turn off that. So I can understand some of the book (for and against) arguments in your article.

Is Google thinking along the lines of the Project Gutenberg, that certain books SHOULD be free to all?