Gilster: Copyrighted works and Google Books can coexist

For years now I’ve been keeping an interested eye on Google Books. The site was created as Google’s foray into a digital library, one in which, theoretically, all books would one day be placed for research and education. But that effort has run into serious opposition from the Authors Guild, which filed a lawsuit against the service as far back as 2005. The case was dismissed in 2013, appealed, and now dismissed again, this time by the Second US Circuit Court of Appeals in New York. This is seriously good news.

Here’s why: Writers worry about copyright and protection of their work, a natural way of protecting their income stream. But as my most recent research foray into Google Books demonstrates, they’re in little danger from the service as constituted. Google Books has digitized some twenty million volumes, but that doesn’t mean you can go into the site and read or print out a book that’s under copyright. Instead, what you see are snippets of text or pages related to your search, and authors can opt out of having their books included in search results.

Frivolous lawsuit

So when I needed some fairly technical definitions for an article I was developing on astrophysics, I found several good sources after running a search for the relevant terms. Each hit highlighted my search words and I was able to extract what I needed without having access to the entire volume, or even a large fraction of it. This is, to my mind, a classic case of Fair Use, which means that although something is covered by copyright, it can be used for a “transformative” purpose, such as to comment or criticize it or use it in basic research.

Although the Authors Guild argued that what Google Books was doing is not Fair Use, it’s hard to see why it would not be, as the appeals court has now agreed. The Guild is now taking this to the Supreme Court, but I doubt anything comes of the effort. Given the limits on what a researcher can view from any chosen copyrighted title, I find this limited use of intellectual property entirely in keeping with the law. Just as a physical library limits access to its volumes, so this digital collection drills down to what you’ve searched for and lets you see nothing else.

The Authors Guild lawsuit actually strikes me as frivolous when you stack it up against the developing world of information online. If Google were denied the ability to show snippets of text that it had digitized and indexed, then the very idea of search engines would be called into question. Run any search on the main Google site and what you get back are links along with snippets of information about the sites your search has uncovered. This is the world we live in, and it’s hard to believe anyone would argue for shutting down our search engines.

The real problem

Google Books is useful, but a good library provides more than snippets of its texts. David Rothman, founder of TeleRead has long advocated a national digital library that would provide access to copyrighted materials, one supported by an endowment that could be funded by philanthropists of the Gates variety. He also backs literacy campaigns that could reverse the stunning numbers we’re seeing from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics. Consider: The average US household spends about $100 per year on reading material of all kinds.

The problem is worst among the young, with the average 15-19 year old spending a grand total of six minutes a week on reading for pleasure. Although the Authors Guild argues otherwise, our problem isn't that people are misusing snippets of text on Google Books. It’s getting reading back into the mix for all age groups. Building the digital tools to provide widespread availability of copyrighted books is tricky, for we do have to protect intellectual property. But a society that can build the Internet can work out a solution. What’s needed are good ideas and creativity more than baseless lawsuits.

Paul A. Gilster is the author of several books on technology. Reach him at