Google Books wins another case

By: Riyadh Abdul Aziz

The court in the US recently confirmed that Google is not required to pay fees to scan books for its Google Books services because it falls under fair use.

Google Books is a service that allows users to search for information inside millions of books.

Some of these books scanned for this service were in the public domain because copyright in them has already expired, some of them are still in copyright and are still in print, others are still in copyright but no longer in print.

For the books that are still in print, Google makes them available on the website only after seeking the approval of the publishers of these books. Those no longer in print are mostly orphan works for which the rights holder is difficult, or even impossible, to identify.

Google decided to scan these books without seeking any permissions, but instead of making their full access available for free on the Internet like public domain books, it allows the users to only read small snippets of the location where their search terms can be found.

The Authors Guild in the US has not been happy about the fact that Google, one of the richest companies in the world, is scanning all these works for free and making money indirectly from them through advertising, even if it does not allow users to read them in full. In hope of being able to receive a share from the profits made through Google Books, the Authors Guild sued Google for copyright infringement.

The case was not successful in the first instance as the court decided that Google Books fulfils the requirement for ‘fair use’ because the service includes a transformative aspect that is beneficial to society.

Not only does Google Books provide Internet users with the ability to look for information in millions of books in a way that is not possible through any other service, it also enables visually impaired people to access the information in these books and provides those who are too remote from libraries with an easy way to find information.

The Authors Guild was not happy with the decision and decided to appeal. Fortunately for Google, the Court of Appeal decided a few weeks ago that it agrees with the first decision and considers Google scanning activities to be in compliance with the requirements for fair use. The Authors Guild plans on appealing to the Supreme Court, but it does not seem likely that it will be able to receive a different judgment.

This decision highlights the flexibility of the US Copyright Law to limit the ability of copyright owners in restricting innovative uses of copyright works that are beneficial to society. This is achieved through the ‘fair use’ principle, which is found in very few copyright laws around the world.

Under this principle, the court can decide whether or not a certain use is in violation of copyright by looking at whether or not the use is fair through a number of different perspectives. Under other copyright laws that do not use fair use, like the Omani Copyright Law, the law provides an exhaustive closed list of permitted uses.

If a use is not explicitly mentioned in that list, then the court must decide that this use is in violation of copyright law even if that use is beneficial to society and even if that use does not harm the commercial interests of the author. Google Books has not been successful in some other jurisdictions because of this very problem.

For example, Google was sued in France for scanning books without permission for this same purpose, but because French Copyright Law does not have a fair use principle, the court ordered Google to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars because it held that its activities are in violations of copyright law.

The recent decision of Google Books in the US is a good step towards protecting the freedom of information on the Internet. We should reconsider our laws to ensure that creative businesses in our country are not restricted by the law from figuring out new solutions that enable us to have greater access to knowledge.