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Authors Guild sues Google for copyright infringement

26 September 2005

The Authors Guild of America, with four authors, has taken the extraordinary step of filing a class action suit against Google over its unauthorised scanning and copying of books through its Google Library programme. The suit alleges that the $90 billion search engine and advertising juggernaut is engaging in massive copyright infringement at the expense of the rights of individual writers. It says that through its Google Library programme, the company is reproducing rights still in copyright from the University of Michigan's Library.

Nick Taylor, President of the Author's Guild, said: 'This is a plain and brazen violation of copyright law. It's not up to Google or anyone other than the authors, the rightful owners of these copyrights, to decide whether and how their works will be copied.'

In the strict sense it looks as if the Authors' Guild may well be right. Although Google has agreements with four academic libraries, those of Stanford, Harvard, Michigan and Oxford, to create digital copies of substantial part of their collections and to make those collections available for searching online, the Internet giant has made no attempt to clear this with the authors of those works which are still in copyright.

The Authors Guild website (which is currently curiously hard to find through Google) points out to its members that: 'Google is a commercial, not a charitable, enterprise. Google is worth roughly $90 billion (£50.68 billion), making staggering profits through its online advertising programs. Its investment in Google Library is intended to bring even more visitors and profits to its website and ancillary services. The Guild is all for profit, but when the profit comes from the works of authors, the authors should be properly compensated... Google is digitizing countless texts, your books, in their entirety - every sentence, every carefully chosen word - without your permission.'

Ranged up against the Guild are many who feel that the huge potential of the Internet is its ability to deliver information globally and instantly. Its most powerful search engine gives authors a chance to have their books made available to the world.

The Los Angeles Times, well-known for its excellent book pages, expresses this other view:

'If the paranoid myopia that drives such thinking penetrates too deeply into the law, search engines will eventually shut down. What's the difference, after all, between a copyrighted Web page and a copyrighted book? What if Internet entrepreneurs could sue Google for indexing their websites? What if the law required search engines to get clearance for every Web page? Even a company as large and well-funded as Google couldn't pull that off because what's on the Internet, and who owns that content, changes constantly... Technology that makes it easier to find, buy and read books is good for everyone - even the authors suing Google.'

This is a debate which cuts right to the heart of copyright, what it really means for authors, and the vast possibilities opening up for them the web.

Authors Guild