Google Says Authors Guild Lawsuit Could Shred Modern Card Catalog

A victory for the Authors Guild in its copyright infringement case against Google would do nothing less than destroy the "modern version of the card catalog," the search company argues in new court papers filed this week.

"This case is about whether Google’s modern version of the card catalog -- a search tool that allows anyone with access to the Internet to search among millions of books -- can continue to exist," Google says.

Google’s sweeping rhetoric comes in its latest round of papers stemming from its book digitization effort, which involves scanning library books and displaying snippets of some of them in its search engine, in response to queries.

The company is currently appealing an order by U.S. Circuit Court Judge Denny Chin allowing the Authors Guild to proceed with its case as a class-action lawsuit.

Google argues that the Authors Guild isn't aligned with book authors and, therefore, shouldn't be able to proceed with a class-action. The company has been arguing that Chin wrongly discounted a Google-commissioned survey showing that many writers approve of its decision to scan millions of books from public libraries and make them searchable. Google says that 58% of 800 surveyed authors said they approved of the book project, while 19% say they have or would benefit from it.

The Authors Guild filed papers last month arguing that Google's "invalid and misleading" survey doesn't prove much.

But Google counters in its most recent papers that survey results "merely confirm common sense."

"Many authors benefit from inclusion of their works in a searchable index through which an Internet user anywhere in the world can identify and locate their books," Google continues. "Google Books is not a substitute for buying or borrowing books; it does not sell or display books, but merely allows users to find books -- to search for books that match their interests and to decide, based on a few short snippets, whether the book is potentially relevant or useful. It stands to reason that authors benefit from such a tool."

The case has drawn widespread interest from a host of outside groups. Law professors and academic authors have sided with Google, while songwriters, playwrights and others have aligned with the Authors Guild. The songwriters and playwrights argue that a class-action lawsuit is the only realistic way for content creators to enforce their copyrights when their works are digitized without permission.

At this point, there's no way to know how the appellate court will view the matter. But it's worth noting that even if the court says the Authors Guild can proceed with a class-action, Google could still ultimately win the lawsuit on fair-use grounds. In fact, a group of universities who were sued by the Authors Guild for working with Google recently prevailed on fair-use grounds. In that case, U.S. District Court Judge Howard Baer in New York said he "cannot imagine a definition of fair use that ... would require that I terminate this invaluable contribution to the progress of science and cultivation of the arts."

The Authors Guild's dispute with Google dates to 2005, when the organization sued Google for allegedly infringing copyright with the initiative. The Authors Guild and Google reached a settlement several years ago, but Chin scuttled the deal due to antitrust concerns. That agreement would have allowed Google to create a new book registry and sell digital downloads at prices it sets with the registry. That deal also would have immunized Google -- but no one else -- from liability for digitizing orphan works, or books under copyright whose owners can't be found. Critics argued that this provision would have granted Google a monopoly in orphan works.

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