Courts Rule Digital Book Scanning and Searching Legal (Again)

On June 10, the 2nd circuit of the US Court of Appeals ruled in Authors Guild v. HathiTrust that digitizing library books and allowing users to search their full text falls under “fair use” guidelines of copyright law.

So what? Some book lovers may initially react with disinterest, if they see this as just the latest in an ongoing series of legal squabbles between the Authors Guild (AG) and others versus Google since 2005. But this case could have a real impact on both readers and writers that’s easy to overlook.

For context, in 2002 Google began perhaps the most ambitious undertaking in the history of the written word: scanning millions of books in order to make them accessible to readers worldwide in digital form.

However, by late September of 2005, the AG, and later others, filed complaints against Google, claiming (among other things) that the tech giant’s plan to make the bulk of mankind’s published writing available online would deprive authors and publishers of revenues from sales of the printed books that were scanned.

The legal wrangling continued until late 2013, when the courts ruled that Google’s actions were more likely to catalyse sales of printed books (including boosting revenues to authors and publishers rather than eroding them), and dismissed the complaints.

More recently, the AG appealed, claiming that schools and libraries participating in Google’s HathiTrust program should be prevented from making scanned books fully searchable by their students and patrons without paying authors and publishers. A side note for quibblers: the ruling applies only to full text searches — but not to reading an entire book online, except for some readers with disabilities, who can get the full text for free.

But what does this mean to you? If you’re an avid reader, it will be easier to discover new books and writers, and you’ll be able to read snippets from virtually any part of a scanned book; if you’re a writer whose book has been scanned, you may be able to cultivate a grassroots readership more effectively as a result.

As a possible unintended consequence, some writers may prove unable to resist the temptation to include popular search terms in the text of the books, increasing their discoverability but potentially diminishing the authenticity of their voices. Likewise, some publishers may feel compelled to pepper books with “where to buy” links or other forms of advertising, in order to exploit full-text searching.

So the June 10 ruling is a mixed blessing for all parties concerned: fair use advocates, readers, writers and publishers. It may also quietly signal a denouement to the protracted litigation that has stalled Google’s historic vision for the future of the written word again and again over almost a decade.

This is the second time in recent months that the courts have rebuffed the objections of the AG and others to the realities of today’s increasingly digital book world, and how it actually works in real life. Here at IR, we applaud anyone who helps readers discover new voices more easily and economically, just as we support those who try to help writers earn a living wage in an industry that is increasingly trending toward something sadly akin to slave labor.

There are few easy choices in today’s book world, but it seems sure that increasing online access to reading material at low-to-no cost is inevitable. How to make it fairly support those who create and deliver writing to readers remains an open but important question — yet isn’t it finally time to affirm that the rules have changed, for real and forever… and move forward?