22 October, 2015

Knowledge for All - Google Books is Fair Use

Information, and access to it, is an incredibly powerful tool to create progression, social mobility and to affect even the biggest nations in wondrous ways. True or not, this writer is a firm believer in the dissemination and sharing of knowledge (even through blogging), and many initiatives have strived to give access to knowledge and information to those who cannot do so themselves. One such initiative is Google Books (in some ways), although clearly still laced with the sub-text of corporate gain, allowing for "...people everywhere [to be] able to search through all of the world’s books to find the ones they’re looking for". By no means altruistic, yet quite useful, the project aims to scan all of the world's books into one database, using it to allow people to find information quickly, effectively and inter-connectively (this writer notes this is not a sales pitch, even if it sounds like one). The project came under fire some time ago, prevailing initially, but the case since moved on to the US Court of Appeals, which handed down its judgment only last week.

To give this story some color, the case of Authors Guild v Google Inc dealt with the aforementioned project, where snippets of books (in image form or not) are presented to a user who searches the database for a word, phrase or sentence, with the results containing one or more instances of the search terms used in brief context. Some participating research libraries have also allowed Google to retain digital copies of some works under strict contractual terms. The Authors Guild did not accept this use of its authors' works (many of which act as plaintiffs in the matter), and took Google to court for copyright infringement.

The crux of the case lied in whether Google's use in the provision of its snippets and its search facility in seeking out the relevant content in the books amounted to fair use under 17 USC section 107 (and the four factors used to assess whether a use of a work amounts to fair use). The Court of Appeals proceeded, therefore, to apply the four factors of fair use to Google's service.


Gary struggled to find what he was looking for.
If only there was a better way...
The first factor looks at what the purpose and character of the secondary use of the work was, i.e. whether Google's use of the copyright protected works was in any way 'transformative'. The Court quickly saw that Google's search capability was highly transformative, as "...the purpose of Google's copying of the... books is to make available significant information about those books, permitting a searcher to identify those that contain a word or term of interest, as well as those that do not include reference to it. In addition, through the ngrams tool, Google allows readers to learn the frequency of usage of selected words in the aggregate corpus of published books in different historical periods". What Google's service allows for users to do is very different than the character and purpose of the books themselves, making their use of the works quite transformative. They also saw that the snippets added something more to the search function, and is in itself also transformative, allowing for a more in-depth assessment of context and relevance when searching for information to the user. Google's commercial motivation did not negate this finding.

The Court determined, briefly, that the second factor (nature of the protected work) played very little part in the assessment of fair use.

When looking at the third factor (the amount and substantiality of what was copied), Judge Leval, handing down the majority's judgment, determined that as no full copies were made available to the public by Google of the scanned books, the search function did not copy a substantial amount. The snippets shown in the results did not, in Judge Level's mind, give enough material to the reader to substitute the protected works, as only very small amounts of text are revealed to each individual user.

Judge Leval finally looked at the fourth factor, assessing the effect of the works' use upon the potential market for or value of the copyrighted works. Although the Court did recognize that there could be an impact on the works or their potential market, albeit a small one, it still had to be "...a meaningful or significant effect" for there to be an issue under the fourth factor. Even if the snippets display some facts or information, and thus detract from a need to purchase the works, they still offer very little in the form of a substitute to the original works and would not cause much of an impact in the works' potential market.

Google's Books project was therefore deemed to fall under fair use.

What the decision in hand showed us is a clear need for there to be more direct interference in an author's use of a work, and their monetary gain from it through its intended purpose (loosely said, at least). What Google created was a tool, not a substitute, that by no means superseded the original works, but allowed for them to be searched and reviewed partially, while leaving much to the original that needed to be looked through to understand the bigger, more accurate picture. The decision came as no surprise to this writer, as Google Books is nothing more than that, yet still very useful for those seeking to find a snippet of information or a factoid. Whether the matter will go to the Supreme Court remains to be seen, but the Authors' Guild has promised to take the matter further, and this writer will await the granting (or denial) of certiorari by the Supreme Court with interest.

Source: IPKat

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