Writers Guild Confident In Suing Google

Despite contrary opinions from some legal experts, the Authors Guild says it can win its copyright-infringement lawsuit against search engine giant Google.

September 22, 2005

3 Min Read
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Despite contrary opinions from some legal experts, the Authors Guild on Wednesday said it was confident that it would win its copyright-infringement lawsuit against search engine giant Google Inc.

The guild and three authors, including a U.S. Poet Laureate, filed the class-action suit Tuesday in federal court in New York. The plaintiffs claim Google's initiative to electronically copy library books without first getting permission from copyright holders is a "massive" infringement of the rights of writers.

"I don't think it's particularly close under copyright law," Paul Aiken, executive director of the guild, said. "You're not allowed to copy works for commercial purposes without a license, and that's precisely what they're doing."

The source of the controversy is Google's initiative to digitize and store in its database books from the libraries of Harvard, Stanford, the University of Michigan, the University of Oxford and the New York Public Library. The purpose, according to Google, is to eventually build a searchable virtual card catalog of all books in all languages.

In response to the lawsuit, the Mountain View, Calif., search-engine giant, which accounts for more than half of all searches on the Web, focused on what it perceives as the social benefit of the project."We regret that this group chose to sue us over a program that will make millions of books more discoverable to the world -- especially since any copyright holder can exclude their books from the program," Google said in its corporate blog.

The right to exclude books, however, doesn't satisfy writers, or book publishers, since it requires them to approach Google. They believe Google should ask permission first.

"It's not for third parties to come in and digitize copyrighted works of 10s of thousands of authors and decide what they'll do with it," Aiken said.

As logical as that argument may sound, legal precedent appears to favor Google.

In the 2003 case Kelly vs. Arriba Soft Corp., a photographer sued a search engine for displaying thumbnail images of work that originally appeared on his Web site. The photographer claimed copyright infringement, but the Ninth Circuit ruled against him, saying that the act of copying the material, even for commercial purposes, was not exploitative and therefore was fair use."Everything the Ninth Circuit stated with respect to Arriba applies with equal force to the (Google) Print Library Project," Jonathan Band, a copyright lawyer in Washington, D.C., wrote in a recent analysis of the dispute.

Google has said it does not plan to sell text ads on listings for library books, but that doesn't make a difference to the guild, which believes a business should pay for the right of copying works, no matter what it plans to do with them.

"A lot of authors get by on the bits of money they get from various users of their work, and the Internet doesn't change all of that," Aiken said.

The guild is not alone in objecting to Google's library projects. Other groups that have spoken out against the search engine include the Association of American Publishers, the Association of Learned and Professional Society Publishers and the Text and Academic Authors Association.

In a statement released Wednedsay, the Association of American Publishers said it "fully supported the Author's Guild's motives and share the important concerns raised in the suit.""We hope that Google will resume the dialogue we began several months ago in an effort to seek an acceptable approach to the treatment of copyrighted works," the group said.

Joining the guild as plaintiffs are Herbert Mitgang, a former New York Times editorial writer and author of fiction and nonfiction books; Betty Miles, an author of works for children and young adults; and Daniel Hoffman, the author and editor of poetry, translation, and literary criticism. Hoffman was the 1973-74 U.S. Poet Laureate.

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