It’s over. It’s really and truly over. We’re talking, of course, about the Authors Guild and its fruitless quest to thrust a legal harpoon into Google over the company’s decision to scan more than 20 million library books.
The Guild pursued Google (GOOG) for more than a decade, including multiple trips to a district court and a federal appeals court, before the Supreme Court pulled the plug once and for all on Monday morning. In the end, the Authors Guild caught nothing but a legal bill.
The Supreme Court, as its custom, did not provide reasons for the ruling but only a short order stating it would not hear an appeal. The result is that a lower court’s ruling, which found Google’s book scanning to be “fair use” and “highly transformational,” will stand.
This outcome will be a blow to some literary elite, including renowned writers like Margaret Atwood and J.M. Coetzee, who signed a brief that urged the Supreme Court to take up the case. But everyone else should breathe a sigh of relief—and, frankly, those esteemed authors should as well.
The reason is that Google’s book scanning has resulted in a rich repository of knowledge that everyone can use. Information that was once locked up in dusty tomes at places like Harvard and Stanford can now be accessed by anyone with a keyboard and an Internet connection.
This digital distribution has brought democratization of knowledge, and a wealth of research opportunities for readers and scholars. If the Authors Guild had prevailed, millions of books could have been closed once again, sealed off by a thicket of lawyers demanding permission to peek at any page.
But what about the writers? Is it fair that Google took their work without paying for it?
Contrary to a narrative spun by Google’s critics, the search giant has not been profiting at authors’ expense. The company does not make money from Google Book search, and every author is able to ask Google to remove even the default “snippet view,” which displays a few sentences.
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Overall, the project has been a money-loser for Google. Not only it did pick up the cost of the scanning, which it paid hundreds of people to do, the company has had to pay more than a decade of legal bills.
Finally, note that many authors never agreed with the Authors Guild’s lawsuit in the first place. These writers have claimed, correctly, that the Google scanning has saved many books from obscurity. What good is an out-of-print book sitting in an out-of-the-way library where no one can read it?
This doesn’t mean the Authors Guild and writers like Atwood are ill-intentioned. Their fretting over Google reflects a fear that control over culture is slipping from authors and publishers, and into the hands of large tech companies. This is a legitimate worry — but suing over Google Books would have been done nothing to solve it.
But all this is now moot. The Supreme Court has spoken, and we can rest easy that the vast repository of knowledge scanned by Google will remain accessible to all of us.
An earlier version of this story referred to speculation that outside companies paid Authors Guild legal bills. The Guild has since stated its members and foreign authors’ organizations have paid all costs.