Denny Chin

In Google Books decision, judge rules: It's not evil

November 14, 2013: 1:29 PM ET

Google may scan and surface snippets of copyrighted books, even if it doesn't receive permission first.

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FORTUNE -- "Don't be evil."

That's the oft-cited informal corporate motto of Google, the Mountain View, Calif.-based technology company whose perception in recent years has run afoul of that idea. Whether through accusations of plagiarism (by Apple, directed at Google's mobile operating system, Android), insensitivity (by dedicated users of the many services it has shuttered over the years) or creepiness (too-personalized advertisements, anyone?), the company's once-sterling reputation has taken a beating.

Today, score one for the big G.

A federal judge has dismissed a long-running copyright infringement lawsuit brought against Google (GOOG) in 2005. The Authors Guild argued that Google's actions scanning copyrighted books -- a subset of the more than 20 million tomes it has scanned since 2004 -- infringed on those copyrights, because the for-profit company did not request permission by each individual rights holder before uploading images of the texts and making snippets of that content available on its popular search engine.

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At issue is the concept of "fair use," a legal gray area that allows people to legally reproduce content they don't own for a number of narrow reasons: education, criticism or commentary, parody, and so forth. What is defined as commentary and what is merely republication, for example, is a matter of (rather heated) debate.

U.S. Circuit Judge Denny Chin in New York rejected the Guild's argument, granting Google's motion for summary judgment.

"In my view, Google Books provides significant public benefits," 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. It has become an invaluable research tool that permits students, teachers, librarians, and others to more efficiently identify and locate books. It has given scholars the ability, for the first time, to conduct full-text searches of tens of millions of books. It preserves books, in particular out-of-print and old books that have been forgotten in the bowels of libraries, and it gives them new life. It facilitates access to books for print-disabled and remote or underserved populations. It generates new audiences and creates new sources of income for authors and publishers. Indeed, all society benefits."

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Does that mean you'll be able to read Fifty Shades of Grey cover-to-cover on Google Books without ponying up some dough? Not quite. But the decision helps to establish some clarity in an otherwise still foggy area of the law. The fair use doctrine exists to grease the skids of societal creativity -- a surprisingly noble side effect for a project helmed by a commercial enterprise in Silicon Valley.

In other words: not evil.

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