Google’s digital library wins fair use against Canadian writers

Google’s digital library wins fair use against Canadian writers

Won’t somebody think of the children!? A New York federal court judge will.

A copyright infringement lawsuit by multiple authors’ groups – including two Canadian ones – against Google and several universities for their HathiTrust Digital Library book scanning and digital distribution has been dismissed.

Federal Justice Hon. Harold Baer Jr. drew from the fair use section of U.S copyright legislation, as well as the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in his decision. The defendants convincingly argued that Hathitrust appropriately disseminates materials for educational and social good purposes, in particular by greatly increasing reading material accessibility for people living with visual impairments.

The Writers’ Union of Canada and the Union des Écrivaines et des Écrivains Quebecois were the two Canadian plaintiff organizations, losing alongside the Authors Guild of America and others.

The backstory
The HathiTrust Digital Library is a database of reading material, much of which is provided the Google Books Library Project. The purpose of Google’s Library Project is, put simply by Silicon Public writer Lisa Jackson, “to scan and publish all the books in the world.” HathiTrust already contains 10M books, 73 percent of which are copyrighted material.

This victory for Google follows on the heels of a recent copyright concession. In this joint release, Google and the Association of American Publishers (AAP) announced a settlement in their marathon copyright dispute, which started in 2005. The suit was filed by the APP on behalf of members McGraw-Hill, Pearson Education, the Penguin Group, John Wiley & Sons, and Simon& Schuster. The APP gave Google the right to scan and sell e-books on the online store Google Play for an undisclosed amount of money.

The judgment
At issue was scanning for the purpose of indexing. The judge found that scanning is “transformative”, which is a fair use justification to sidestep normal copyright regulation. Historically transformative uses tend to be for commentary, criticism or parody, but the definition is expanding in the digital day and age.

The judge, however, wrote that the “most important” transformative purpose of the scans was the “unprecedented ability of print-disabled individuals to have an equal opportunity to compete with their sighted peers” as argued by the defendants and the National Federation of the Blind, which provided an opposition brief in the case. Wrote Judge Baer,

“The totality of the fair-use factors suggest that copyright law’s “goal of promoting the Progress of Science . . . would be better served by allowing the use than by preventing it.” Bill Graham, 448 F.3d at 608 (quotation marks omitted). The enhanced search capabilities that reveal no in-copyright material, the protection of Defendants’ fragile books, and, perhaps most importantly, the unprecedented ability of print-disabled individuals to have an equal opportunity to compete with their sighted peers in the ways imagined by the ADA protect the copies made by Defendants as fair use to the extent that Plaintiffs have established a prima facie case of infringement. In addition to the briefs submitted by the parties, the two memoranda filed by amici further confirm that the underlying rationale of copyright law is enhanced by the HDL.”

The orphans
Orphaned works remain in question. With a little over a quarter of works in HathiTrust having no copyright or known copyright, there is confusion about how best to proceed. Google proposed that it scan the orphaned works, place up to 20 percent of the text in search results, sell the works, and then set aside the collected sales revenue until the author comes forward. The New York Federal Court rejected that proposal last year. U.S. District Judge Denny Chin felt that the plan as outlined in the Amended Settlement Agreement (ASA) not only  took too many liberties with the works, but also posed anti-trust concerns.

The ASA would give Google a de facto monopoly over unclaimed works. Only Google has engaged in the copying of books en masse without copyright permission…Google's ability to deny competitors the ability to search orphan books would further entrench Google's market power in the online search market.

Judge Baer did not rule on the orphan works question because the suit argued against the legality of the Orphan Works Project – a University of Michigan Library-led project to identify books whose copyright holders cannot be identified or contacted – which has not formally launched its efforts. The Orphan Works Project states on their website in an update from this past July that “There are no plans to provide access to these works.”

The new status quo
To recap the current parameters, there are some clear checks and balances to fair use in practice. One might say that neither side of this copyright debate is happy. And perhaps that’s how it should be. To wit:

  • When people search the HathiTrust database to search a word in a copyrighted book, only the page numbers and number of mentions in the book are provided. The full text of the book is not available for fully abled individuals who do not have rights holder’s permissions.
  • Full text will be made available for people who have rights holder’s permissions as well as for people with certified print disabilities. In the case of those with print disabilities, the work will be provided in an auditory version.

The response
The general public response has been largely positive, though there is a sample bias because so many internet commentators tend to the pro-digital-proliferation side of these types of debates. While many members of the copyright, legal or library community wrote thoughtful analysis supporting the decision; others, such as blogger Matthew Sag, have overstated the victory.

“The decision is a landmark win for the HathiTrust, the University defendants, people with print-disabilities, Google, the Digital Humanities and, I would argue, for humanity in general,” said Sag.

Authors are not, however, without their advocates. The concern that too much fair use hurts copyright holders who rely on copyright purchase for income was best summed up by Publisher’s Weekly reader George Payerle, who commented, “It’s clear that authors are expected to subsist on electrons.”

The big question
One major issue that remains under-addressed is data access. Google through HathiTrust is collecting large amounts of data about the who, what, where and when of book searching.

Word on the street is that Amazon has been less than generous about sharing its intel with publishers, so it’s possible that a part of the Google-AAP settlement includes terms of data sharing.

Certainly author groups should benefit from this same access to data, even as piecemeal compensation for their lack of legal copyright at the hands of fair use.

Denise Brunsdon is a JD/MBA candidate at Western University.