Copyright Litigation: Authors and Authors Guild Ask to be Heard by Supreme Court in Copyright Infringement Lawsuit Against Google


Washington, D.C. – Following a ruling by the Second Circuit Court of Appeals in favor of Google, Inc., the 2005 class-action lawsuit The Authors Guild et al. v. Google, Inc. has headed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Copyright litigators for Plaintiffs The Authors Guild et al. are asking the high court to hear the lawsuit, which alleges copyright infringement by the publication by Google of Google’s digital book library. Plaintiffs contend that Google, which seeks permission from the owners of the copyrighted works (typically libraries) but not from the authors of the works, has committed massive copyright infringement. Amicus curiae briefs have been filed with the Court by numerous parties. Among them are several notable authors including Malcolm Gladwell, Margaret Atwood, and Steven Sondheim.

Google has defended against the allegations by arguing, inter alia, that its use of the copyrighted material was permissible as a fair use.

Circuit Judge Denny Chin, sitting by designation, issued the opinion for the Southern District of New York. He agreed with Google that its use of the material was properly classified as a fair use, writing:

In my view, Google Books provides significant public benefits. 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.

The Second Circuit affirmed.

The questions presented by Plaintiffs to the Supreme Court are:

1. Whether, in order to be “transformative” under the fair-use exception to copyright, the use of the copyrighted work must produce “new expression, meaning, or message,” as this Court stated in Campbell and as the Third, Sixth, and Eleventh Circuits have held, or whether the verbatim copying of works for a different, non-expressive purpose can be a transformative fair use, as the Second, Fourth, and Ninth Circuits have held.
2. Whether the Second Circuit’s approach to fair use improperly makes “transformative purpose” the decisive factor, replacing the statutory four-factor test, as the Seventh Circuit has charged.
3. Whether the Second Circuit erred in concluding that a commercial business may evade liability for verbatim copying by arguing that the recipients of those copies will use them for lawful and beneficial purposes, a rationale that has been flatly rejected by the Sixth Circuit.

4. Whether a membership association of authors may assert copyright infringement claims on behalf of its members.

The case has been designated as No. 15-849.

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