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Copyright v Google Books

Screen Shot 2016-05-13 at 13.40.41Traditional entertainment companies have long been struggling with the move to digital. Some, like the old Blockbuster chain have simply given up the fight. Some, like the music industry, have tried to have their cake and eat it, forcing customers to pay twice if they wanted to have their content on both physical media and in digital form. Some, like the publishing industry, have more-or-less learned to co-exist with it. That doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re always happy about it.

Digital companies, meanwhile, have often built their businesses on being able and willing to ruffle feathers. Uber, AirBnB, Amazon and now Google have all had run ins with established industry and in some cases with the law. Google’s most recent skirmish, which has just been resolved, is connected with Google Books.

In simple terms, Google has been scanning millions of books, both in and out of copyright. For books which are in copyright, these scans are used to provide Google users with a view of excerpts from the book, based on which they can then make a purchasing decision. In short, the service works in much the same way as the “Look inside” service on Amazon, the only real difference being that on Amazon the rights holder has to submit the work to be included in the preview service, whereas on Google Books, Google is scanning and displaying the book whether the rights holder likes it or not and in some cases, the rights holders have been making it very clear that they don’t like it at all. In fact the U.S. Authors Guild has just emerged the loser in a protracted legal battle over Google’s use of excerpts from books which are still within copyright. While the current legal fight may be done and dusted, the Guild has made it clear that it intends to monitor Google’s behaviour to ensure that it remains within the bounds of the legal definition of “fair use” (in the U.S.).

The key point to note here, which was fundamental to the decision in favour of Google, is that Google is only showing excerpts from books in copyright rather than the whole text. Google argues that, in essence, it is simply creating a catalogue of titles and giving potential purchasers the information they need to make a buying decision. Indeed it could even be argued that this service is analogous to the ability to browse titles in a physical bookshop before taking a decision on whether or not to buy them. While the Authors Guild and some high-profile authors are clearly upset about what they see as a commercial company benefiting from their work at their expense, there are others, outside of Google, who argue that authors will actually benefit from this service through increased sales. In fact this point is raised repeatedly in Internet discussions on the topic. The counter-argument goes that many people like to try before they buy and that by allowing readers to do just that Google is actually increasing the likelihood that people will actually purchase the whole book either in physical or in digital form.

If rights holders find sales of their books increasing (particularly if said sales are coming via Google Books), then presumably rights holders in general and the Authors Guild in particular will soften their position regarding Google’s activities. If not, then they may seek to lobby for a change in the law, which would stop Google undertaking any more scanning. Even if they succeeded in this, the basic reality is that the longer the law favours Google, the less relevant its impact arguably becomes since new books tend to be published in both digital and print editions in any case and digital books, even those by established authors such as Ian Rankin, are increasingly allowing browsers to read excerpts from them to encourage a purchase.

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