Home opinion-and-analysis ShawThing Google can scan books – US Court decides

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Google - at least in the US - has at last won the controversial right to scan books – copyright or otherwise – and include relevant segments of the text in its search results. It cannot make the book available in whole unless the copyright owner has agreed or the book is in the public domain.

On the surface that sounds reasonable. Researchers, students and those with a casual interest will be able to unlock a huge repository of information - if it is useful may lead to that work being purchased for the eventual profit of the copyright holder.

The 30 page ruling from US District Court Judge Denny Chin relied on a fair use case because “it was highly transformative and did not harm the market for the original work. Google Books provides significant public benefits … as an essential research tool,” and noted that the scanning service has expanded literary access for the blind and helped preserve the text of old books from physical decay.

Judge Chin also rejected the theory that Google was depriving authors of income, noting that the company does not sell the scans or make whole copies of books available. He concluded, instead, that Google Books served to help readers discover new books and amounted to “new income for authors.”

The Plaintiff – The Authors Guild INC – has said it will appeal the decision.

Google first started scanning books – now more than 20 million completed - in conjunction with several major research libraries in 2004. The fair use provision refers to the fact that search results can only deliver ‘snippets’ of books at no charge. In return, the participating libraries can loan out the digital copies – presumably within existing copyright guidelines or payment provisions.

All types of books – and now magazines - are scanned including novels, biographies, children's books, reference works, textbooks, instruction manuals, treatises, dictionaries, cookbooks, poetry books, and memoirs. Approx. 93% are non-fiction and the remainder are fiction. The majority are out-of-print and the search shows which libraries have copies or where the book may be purchased.


It is business – perhaps very good business for Google but also for copyright holders. The judge has determined it is legal to do so and the appeal will simply waste more time and money – we must accept that the world is now digital – not analogue.

I think the real benefit of this project – apart from generating more advertising revenue for Google – is the ability to analyse themes, changes and to cross-tabulate paradigms over time – something that computers are very good at.

The arguments against this seem to ignore the thriving e-book industry that now sells more digital copies than hard copies.


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Ray Shaw

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Ray Shaw ray@im.com.au  has a passion for IT ever since building his first computer in 1980. He is a qualified journalist, hosted a consumer IT based radio program on ABC radio for 10 years, has developed world leading software for the events industry and is smart enough to no longer own a retail computer store!