Daily Dispatches

Court rules massive online book database doesn’t infringe copyrights


Looking for a particular book and want to search beyond your local library? Need to mine scholarly works about your research subject? Have a disability and need access to a variety of literature in alternative formats?

The 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals just confirmed the legality of a full-text searchable database of millions of books that streamlines all of those tasks. In a decision issued last week, the federal appeals court ruled the database is a fair use of copyrighted works. The court also said it is permissible to distribute the books in alternative forms to people with reading disabilities.

The copyright infringement lawsuit was brought by authors and several authors’ organizations after a group of research universities agreed in 2004 to let Google Inc. electronically scan and save their books. The resulting repository has more than 10 million books published over many centuries and written in numerous languages. The database can be searched but does not provide the full text of the books, requiring users to buy their own copy of the work or check it out at a library.

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In the decision, the three-judge panel said the creation of the database was a “quintessentially transformative use” of a copyrighted work, a legal principle supporting the court’s finding that it was lawful to copy and store books electronically without prior permission from authors and publishers.

“There is no evidence that the authors write with the purpose of enabling text searches of their books,” Circuit Judge Barrington Parker wrote. He added that enabling the full-text search “adds to the original something new with a different purpose and a different character.”

The lawsuit was filed after colleges, universities, and other nonprofit institutions in October 2008 created the HathiTrust Digital Library. The group has at least 80 member institutions, including named defendants the University of Michigan, the University of California at Berkeley, Cornell University, the University of Wisconsin, and Indiana University.

The library includes content scanned through the Google Books and Internet Archive digitization projects, as well as content from local libraries. The general public can search for particular terms but the digital library shows only page numbers where the term is found, unless the copyright owner has authorized more extensive information to be displayed in search results.

The library also permits anyone who is able to prove that he or she cannot read printed material to access full books in alternative forms, such as through software that converts text into spoken words or that magnifies text.

Joseph E. Petersen, an attorney for HathiTrust and the schools, said his clients were “grateful that the court recognized the immense public value of the HathiTrust Digital Library and the fact that the project entirely comports with copyright law.”

Attorney Daniel F. Goldstein, who argued the case on behalf of people with disabilities, said in an email that the ruling “radically changes for the better the lives of print-disabled Americans,” including those with blindness, arthritis, dyslexia, cerebral palsy, and upper spinal cord injuries. “Those of us without a print disability take for granted our easy access to our collective intellectual capital stored in libraries. Now that same access will be available to those with a disability.”

Google Books won a similar ruling in November 2013.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Laura Edghill
Laura Edghill

Laura Edghill is a freelance writer, church communications director, and public school board member living in Clinton Township, Mich., with her engineer husband and three sons. She is a graduate of the WORLD Journalism Institute's mid-career course. Follow Laura on Twitter @LTEdghill.


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