Today The Authors Guild announced that it has petitioned The Supreme Court to review its ongoing lawsuit against Google Books for illegally copying and distributing copyrighted books without the permission of the copyright holder (the author). The lower courts have ruled against The Authors Guild. My personal feeling (I realize this is kind of old fashioned in the Internet Age) is that people should be compensated for their work. And the work of the writer is as deserving of compensation as the work of – say – a person flipping burgers or a person selling derivatives of worthless mortgages. Click here if you want to read more about this important case.
Here are some FAQs about this lawsuit.
Why is the Authors Guild still pursuing this case against Google?
Google copied 20 million books to create a massive and uniquely valuable database, all without asking for copyright permission or paying their authors a cent. It mines this vast natural language storehouse for various purposes, not least among them to improve the performance of its search and translation services. The problem is that before Google created Book Search, it digitized and made many digital copies of millions of copyrighted books, which the company never paid for. It never even bought a single book. That, in itself, was an act of theft. If you did it with a single book, you’d be infringing.
I’m a writer and I like Google Book Search. I use it all the time. What’s the problem?
Google Books itself is not the problem. We’re all writers here, and we generally like Google Book Search. Some of us use it for research all the time.
The problem is that Google used authors’ books for profit-making purposes without first getting permission from authors. It just went ahead and copied them many times over and extracted their value, without giving the authors any piece of it. There are lots of other great commercial uses of books; the difference is that most users abide by the law and get permission. If corporations are now free to make unauthorized copies of books for profit as long as there is some public benefit to the copying, then authors’ incomes will suffer even more than they have in recent years.
A truism of the digital age is: whoever controls the data owns the future. Google’s exclusive access to such an enormous slice of the world’s linguistic output cemented its market dominance and continues to this day to further its corporate profits.
Isn’t Google just acting like a giant library?
Not at all. Libraries are public institutions, generally non-profit, dedicated to readers and scholars. Even so, they know they have to pay for their books. Moreover, they are largely not-for-profits intended to serve the public good.
Google is in the business of books for commercial reasons only; it is more like a commercial publisher than a library. Like a commercial publisher, it seeks to profit from its use of books. While Google does this in a different way, by extracting value from data (from both the books’ language as data and data collected from users’ searches), it still should seek permission for these uses because it is extracting value from the authors’ expression.
But libraries lent Google the books in the first place, didn’t they? What’s wrong with that?
Borrowing the books was fine, but copying them without permission or payment was not. If you borrow a book from a library, it’s temporary. You can’t keep a copy for your own personal use. Google made a number of copies of each book—times millions. And they’re way past overdue. Just as a few years ago, some banks proved too big to fail, Google has, so far, apparently been too big to punish.
Does the Authors Guild want to shut down Google Books?
No. A resounding no. We did not ask the court to shut down Google Books, we simply asked it to require Google to get permission from authors and pay them for the scanning and use of their works.
Doesn’t Google say this is “fair use”? After all, it doesn’t display full copies.
That is Google’s self-serving legal argument, yes, and so far it has persuaded judges who, we believe, are not seeing the big picture. “Fair use” is the exception to copyright that lets people use portions of (and in rare cases whole) copyrighted works for “purposes such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching, scholarship, or research.” When deciding whether a particular use is “fair,” courts should take into account at least four separate considerations and weigh them against each other. They are: (1) the “purpose and character” of the use, including whether it is commercial; (2) the nature of work that’s being copied; (3) how much of the work was copied; and (4) whether the copying eats into the potential value of the work that was copied. All these things—and anything else that the court deems relevant—have to be considered independently, and then weighed together to make the fair use determination.
In this case, Google’s use was commercial, the entire works were copied, and the market to bring back out of print books is completely devalued.
But a lot of fair uses have a commercial element to them. Surely you can’t be saying that Google’s for-profit status prevents it from making fair uses?
We’re not saying that at all. Commerciality is just one of the factors to be considered.
Under the first factor, where the law expressly directs the courts to look at whether the use is commercial, the court focused almost exclusively on what it viewed as the transformative nature of Google Books. The Second Circuit disregarded the commerciality because of the perceived public benefit of Google Books. First, it looked at the public-facing use (the Google Books search engine) not any of Google’s internal uses. Then, looking at the “purpose and character” of Google Books, it decided the use “transformed” the books because the use was different than the use the books were written for. (We don’t agree that this kind of transformation should favor fair use.) Following that logic, it found that Google Books delivers a public benefit (which we don’t deny), and then weighed the whole factor in Google’s favor—regardless of the fact that Google Books was also blatantly commercial. (Even if we agreed the use were transformative, we think the factor should have balanced out as neutral at the very least.)
Then, the court went on to let this first-factor finding color its discussion of each of the other factors—essentially turning a multi-factor test into a one-factor test. The court did not consider each factor independently, nor did it balance them against each other in light of the purposes of copyright, as required by the law.
The multi-factor fair use test has evolved over more than a century and has survived the test of time—for good reason. It does an efficient job of identifying uses that are fair to make without permission. For instance, quoting from a book, criticizing it, or creating a parody of it are all traditional fair uses. But by straying so far from the statute, the Second Circuit reached a decision that cannot be considered fair, especially if you consider the precedent it will set.
If Google isn’t charging people to search for snippets in Google Books, or putting ads on the page, how can it be considered commercial?
Google didn’t spend millions on scanning these books as a charity project. Again, it did it to have access to all the language in those books, which it used to improve its search engine, allowing it to corner the Internet search market and drive more users to its site, which is based on a model in which visitors equal revenue.
Search engines do not make money by charging people for use; they make money by bringing traffic to their sites, collecting data from the users, and selling advertising. Google makes money in all of these ways from Google Books. The fact it has not to date posted advertising on the results pages from searches inside the books is irrelevant.
Moreover, since the Second Circuit decision, Google has integrated its book-buying service (formerly accessed as part of Google Play) with Google Books. Google Books is now a transparently commercial service, as we have always predicted would eventually be the case.
Why is the Authors Guild taking this to the Supreme Court after it failed to convince so many lower courts?
We believe that the Second Circuit court took a myopic view of fair use law in its ruling and that the Supreme Court needs to step in and correct this. In the final analysis, the appellate court’s reasoning turns on its head the Constitutional purpose of copyright law. The Founders recognized that, for the benefit of the public, we need authors who can earn a living, independent of government, academic or other patronage. That’s the purpose of copyright: to benefit the public by enabling authors to be compensated for their work. But the Second Circuit, blinded by the public-benefit argument of Google Books supporters, overlooked the fact that it completely cuts authors out of the equation.
Moreover, if this case isn’t overturned, this case will become a rule of law; it doesn’t just apply to Google Books, in other words. The decision will be read by other entities as giving them free reign to digitize books (at least books where the author owns the rights) and create searchable excerpt-viewing services for those books. Other entities might decide to show more of the books than Google currently does, and they probably won’t have the security protections that Google does. As a result, many authors’ books could become widely digitized and available for free on the Internet.
Still, if Google Book Search points potential book buyers to your book, shouldn’t you be thanking them?
Why should Google have the right to decide how to market books for authors? Authors may have many other more profitable ways to make money from their out-of-print and other books, and they should have the right to make those decisions. Let’s say you put your house on the market and your neighbour decides it would be great to have a party there while you are away, without first asking you. He justifies it by telling you he invited a lot of people and so will help market your house. Not too many people would be thrilled with that, even if it did in fact end up leading to a sale. What Google did is very similar.
Google’s seizure of our work (and the courts’ blessing of it) represents a denial to authors of emerging and potential markets for our work. It revokes the promise of the digital age. If Google is allowed to swipe our entire work and profit from it, then so can others, in ways we cannot foresee now. That’s a problem because authors may want to write and create in ways we cannot foresee now, as we find new ways to transform—and profit from—our work.
But we don’t need to look to the future to see the harm being done to authors. Even today writers are seeking to bring their out of print works back to market as print-on-demand editions, or e-books—but Google has made a significant amount of many of these titles readily available on the Internet, and for free. The amount Google displays is already enough to satisfy the demands of many readers and researchers, particularly when it comes to non-fiction books. And as libraries start to follow suit, there will be more and more text available from each book.
Wide availability of free books—isn’t that a good thing?
In the short run, for researchers—maybe. But think about what happens next: people won’t buy nearly as many books. That means all but the highest-selling authors won’t be able to make a living from writing books: many authors will have to take on other work to make ends meet. The result, we hate to say, is that fewer quality books will be written—and that’s a loss to us all.
Aren’t most of the books at issue in the case old, and the authors long dead?
Many of them are older works, but in publishing, “older” can mean just a few years off the press. When the books are old enough to be in the public domain, there’s no problem with Google making copies. The problem arises with the millions of books that are still in copyright. The current case involves books found in academic libraries where the copyright is owned by authors. The vast majority of these books are out-of-print, meaning the author generally had the right to reclaim the copyright. And as we mentioned above, authors are increasingly looking to republish and retool their out-of-print books and bring them back as e-books or print-on-demand. Google Books interferes with that market, plain and simple.
Why should readers care?
Readers should care because the Second Circuit decision waters down copyright protection, and if it stands, readers could face a culture in which authors won’t be motivated to create serious work, because it is simply too hard to sustain a writing career financially in a climate where anyone can use books without paying for them. Most serious writing, outside of academia, is done by authors who write as a profession—because, like any art, great writing requires a lot of time, learning, and practice. And readers should care because written works, as we all know, contribute immeasurably to the vitality of our culture.
How complicated can it be for Google to ask an author permission to use her work?
Exactly our point: the rights are eminently clearable. The court refused to acknowledge this point or take it into consideration. For example, our sister organization, the Authors Registry, as well as the Copyright Clearance Center, find authors for royalties from overseas uses with little difficulty or expense. And there are innumerable collective rights organizations around the world who do this all of the time—without much difficulty, and with much less money than Google.