After eight years of litigation, a federal court judge granted summary judgment to Google in its copyright fight with the Authors Guild over the company’s book scanning efforts, finding that fair use protected the project.

“In my view, Google Books provides significant public benefits,” U.S. District Court Judge Denny Chin wrote. “It advances the progress of the arts and sciences, while maintaining respectful consideration for the rights of authors and other creative individuals, and without adversely impacting the rights of copyright holders.”

In 2004, Google began digitally copying the books found in several major research libraries. More than 20 million books have been scanned to date, allowing users to search text “snippets” of the works. Because Google did not obtain permission from copyright holders for the use of their works, individual authors and the Authors Guild brought suit alleging copyright infringement.

Judge Chin found “many” benefits to Google’s project. “Google Books provides a new and efficient way for readers and researchers to find books. It makes tens of millions of books searchable by words and phrases,” he wrote, adding that it has become an essential research tool for librarians and researchers and is now taught as part of the information literacy curriculum to students at all levels.

Humanities scholars in particular have benefited, he added, as they can now analyze massive amounts of data and derive insight into “fields as diverse as lexicography, the evolution of grammar, collective memory, the adoption of technology, the pursuit of fame, censorship, and historical epidemiology.”

Access to books has also been expanded by the project, helping underfunded libraries by providing digitalized copies of books and increasing access to those with disabilities. The project also benefits authors and publishers, Judge Chin said. An “About the Book” page featuring links to booksellers and libraries offering the book will “generate new audiences and create new sources of income.”

After a lengthy procedural history – a settlement deal rejected by Judge Chin in 2011 and a certified class decertified by the Second U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals – the court said Google’s fair use defense was dispositive.

“Google’s use of the copyrighted works is highly transformative,” Judge Chin wrote. “Google Books digitizes books and transforms expressive text into a comprehensive word index that helps readers, scholars, researchers, and others find books. Google Books has become an important tool for libraries and librarians and cite-checkers as it helps to identify and find books. The use of book text to facilitate search through the display of snippets is transformative.”

In addition, the project has transformed book text into data for substantive research purposes, the court said, opening up new fields of research. “Words in books are being used in a way they have not been used before.” Because Google Books is not a tool to read books, it does not supersede or supplant books, and the company does not engage in the direct commercialization of copyrighted works, the court noted.

“Google does, of course, benefit commercially in the sense that users are drawn to the Google websites by the ability to search Google Books. While this is a consideration to be acknowledged in weighing all the factors, even assuming Google’s principal motivation is profit, the fact is that Google Books serves several important educational purposes,” Judge Chin wrote.

Finding that the first factor – the purpose and character of use – “strongly” favored a finding of fair use, given Google’s highly transformative use, the court said the second factor, the nature of the books, also weighed in favor of fair use. Weighing “slightly against” a finding of fair use was the amount and substantiality of the portion used, as the court recognized Google scans the full text of the books.

The fourth factor, the effect of Google’s use on the potential market or value for the books, also weighed strongly in favor of fair use, Judge Chin said. Users cannot obtain the entire book via Google Books, and the project actually “enhances the sales of books to the benefit of copyright holders,” he found. “Google Books provides a way for authors’ works to become noticed, much like traditional in-store book displays. . . . In this day and age of online shopping, there can be no doubt that Google Books improves books sales.”

With the factors tipping the scale in favor of fair use, Judge Chin granted summary judgment to Google.

To read the opinion in The Authors Guild v. Google, click here.

Why it matters: The ruling was an overwhelming victory for Google, with Judge Chin singing the praises of Google Books throughout the decision, even holding that the project actually benefits the plaintiffs by generating new audiences and creating new sources of income for authors and publishers. “Indeed, all society benefits,” he wrote. The Authors Guild disagreed, releasing a statement that it plans to appeal the decision. “Google made unauthorized digital editions of nearly all of the world’s valuable copyright-protected literature and profits from displaying those works,” Paul Aiken, executive director of the group, said. “In our view, such mass digitization and exploitation far exceeds the bounds of fair use.”