Fair’s Fair: What Google Books Means for Scholarship

A picture of a book titled "The Google Book"

Courtesy of Jim Barker, CC BY 2.0, via Flickr

It is a common misconception that Google has obsoleted the purpose of libraries and their keepers. Librarians often challenge this point, noting, as Palfrey does in the afore-linked text, that companies like Google only increase the need for librarians and librarians since, by complicating the nature of information, they create demand for information experts and open new opportunities for how libraries can function.

Just last October, Google shook the information boat again, albeit this time with a little help from the courts. More or less closing a 10 year legal battle between Google and the Authors Guild, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that Google’s system of providing searchable digitized versions of copyrighted books (aka Google Books) counts as fair use. In other words, Google is free to reproduce and give limited access to authors’ works without infringing on any copyright. This decision sets precedent for how digital texts can be presented and should have a significant impact on how people research and access information.

An example of the Google Books search interface

Google Book’s Search Interface
Courtesy of johnlaudun, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0, via Flickr

Before talking more about the implications of this case, I should note that, as a librarian, I have mixed feelings about Google. I fall into a category with many people who I assume are, at the least, mildly suspicious about Google’s powerful position in our digital world. After all, a lot of Google’s practices have raised serious concerns about the collection of our personal information. For instance, the street views on Google Maps, gathered by Google’s army of camera-mounted cars, caused a stir when it was first introduced due to how it publicized personal information, like a license plate.1 At the same time, Google often redeems itself by developing projects with great social value. Sticking with Google Maps here, consider one of Google’s latest initiatives, Project Sunroof, which strives to increase solar panel use by mapping the energy potential of rooftops.

These ambivalent feelings about Google extend to its mass book digitization project. While Google’s profit motives are questionable, much of what Google Books has accomplished falls neatly in line with the goal of librarians. Namely, by scanning and indexing such a large amount of titles, Google enables discovery of information on a large scale. Using Google Book’s search feature, researchers can determine the value of a source based on how often a word appears in the text. Since Google books makes snippets of digitized text available, readers can quickly situate the context of a given word or quote. Personally, I often rely on Google Books to mine bibliographies and to find more information on incomplete citations (this is especially useful for locating primary and historical sources).

All in all, these capabilities that Google Books extends to its users are exactly why the courts have ruled in its favor. As Judge Pierre Leval notes in the court’s deciding opinion, Google’s digitization of copyrighted books is fair use because it:

“…augments public knowledge by making available information about Plaintiff’s books without providing the public with a substantial substitute for matter protected by the Plaintiff’s copyright….” (Authors Guild v. Google, Inc., 2015)

Rather than merely making copies of books, Google’s use is transformative. The ability to search documents and view snippets of texts allows users to do something new with the texts, but also fosters scholarship and scientific progress. This defense in turn underscores fair use as a legal concept. Copyright exists in order to encourage creative and intellectual activity by creating motivation for production through property rights. Once these property rights begin to restrict creativity and intellectual activity, especially in situations where the ability to profit on a work are irrelevant, it becomes counter-productive. In this sense, fair use allows for uses of copyrighted works that are valuable to the public but do not undercut the weight and purpose of an author’s property rights.

Resorts to fair use are common-place in legal battles over copyright. What makes the fair use factor in the Google case exceptional is that it sets precedent for a why a very specific practice, digitizing and indexing books, counts as fair use. Moving forward, scholars and researchers should have more legal lee-way when it comes to making digital copies of texts. I am particularly excited to see what digital projects emerge off the heels of this case in the near future. Say what you will of Google, but there is no denying its victory in this recent case is also a victory for scholarship as a whole.

1.It is worth noting that Google now has safeguards in place to protect against revealing identifying information in its street view pictures.