Commentary

New Court Ruling Means No End In Sight To Author Guild's Battle With Google

A long-running legal battle between the Authors Guild and Google won't end any time soon, thanks to a new court ruling.

This week, the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals granted Google's application to stay proceedings in the trial court while the company appeals an order allowing the authors to bring a class-action. That ruling means that a decision about the central question -- whether Google's ambitious book digitization project is protected by fair-use principles -- might not come for at least one year.

The litigation stems from Google's decision to scan millions of books -- including books under copyright -- and make snippets available through its search engine. The Authors Guild and Association of American Publishers sued Google in 2005, alleging that the company infringed copyright with the initiative.

Google has said from the beginning that its project is protected by fair-use principles. Nonetheless, several years ago Google agreed to a settlement that called for the company to fund a new book rights registry and then sell digital downloads (at prices it sets with the registry.) But U.S. Circuit Court Judge Denny Chin nixed that deal due to concerns that it would give Google a monopoly over “orphan works” -- works under copyright, but whose owners are unknown.

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Shortly after the deal was scuttled, the Authors Guild successfully asked Chin to allow the lawsuit to proceed as a class-action.

Google then filed an appeal with the 2nd Circuit. The company says it will argue that class-action status isn't appropriate given that many authors are in favor of the project.

Last month, Google asked Chin to delay trial proceedings pending a ruling from the appeals court about whether the case should be a class-action. But Chin denied that request. "A stay pending appeal would significantly delay the merits," he wrote. "The merits would have to be reached at some point in any event, and there simply is no good reason to delay matters further."

Google subsequently asked the appellate court to stay the matter. The Authors Guild backed that request, arguing that a stay "will promote the orderly disposition of this case."

That may be. Still, eight years is a long time to wait to learn whether scanning books from libraries is a legitimate fair use.

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