NEW YORK — Google Inc.’s project to digitally copy millions of books for online searches doesn’t violate copyright law, a federal judge ruled Thursday, dismissing an eight-year-old lawsuit against the largest search-engine company.
Google Books provides a public benefit and is a fair use of copyrighted material, Judge Denny Chin in Manhattan ruled. The project, which has scanned more than 20 million books so far, doesn’t harm authors or inventors of original works, Chin said.
“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.”
Chin’s decision comes more than two years after he rejected a proposed $125 million settlement in the case filed by The Authors Guild, which represents writers. The group sued in 2005 alleging that Google, owner of the world’s most popular search engine, infringed copyrights by scanning and indexing books without writers’ permission.
Paul Aiken, the Authors Guild’s executive director, said in a statement that the ruling is a “fundamental challenge” to copyrights and that his group plans to appeal.
“Google made unauthorized digital editions of nearly all of the world’s valuable copyright-protected literature and profits from displaying those works,” Aiken said. “In our view, such mass digitization and exploitation far exceeds the bounds of the fair use defense.”
If upheld on appeal, the decision may help Google retain its leadership in Internet searching, which has allowed it to become the world’s largest online advertiser. Google has more than 70 percent of the ad revenue tied to online searches in the United States, according to researcher EMarketer Inc.
“This is a huge victory for Google, which had previously tried to resolve legal issues regarding Google Books by class-action settlement,” Mark P. McKenna, a law professor specializing in intellectual property at the University of Notre Dame, said in an email. “This decision vindicates Google’s project entirely on fair use grounds, making unnecessary the elaborate structure the parties had proposed for compensation.”
Google Books digitizes books and transforms expressive text into a comprehensive word index that helps researchers and others find books, Chin, an appeals judge sitting in U.S. District Court, said in his opinion.
The project has become an important tool for libraries because it makes millions of books searchable by words and phrases, he said.
“Google Books does not supersede or supplant books because it is not a tool to be used to read books,” the judge wrote. “Instead, it adds value to the original.”
Google doesn’t sell the scans it makes of books or sell the snippets of books it displays, although the company does benefit from users drawn to the site, Chin wrote. Writers also benefit because the scanning project could enhance the sales of books, he wrote.
“Google Books provides a way for authors’ works to become noticed, much like traditional in-store book displays,” according to the opinion. “Many authors have noted that online browsing in general and Google Books in particular helps readers find their work, thus increasing their audiences.”
Google, based in Mountain View, Calif., in October 2012 reached an agreement with five publishers to end their objections to the digital scanning. The accord allows U.S. publishers to choose whether to make their books and articles available for scanning or have them removed.
The publishers are McGraw-Hill Cos., Pearson Education Inc., Penguin Group USA Inc., John Wiley & Sons Inc. and Simon & Schuster Inc., which is owned by CBS Inc.
“This has been a long road, and we are absolutely delighted with today’s judgment,” Google said in an emailed statement. “As we have long said, Google Books is in compliance with copyright law and acts like a card catalog for the digital age, giving users the ability to find books to buy or borrow.”
While Google Books is a small part of the company’s services, Thursday’s decision helps Google stay in the forefront of search technology, said Danny Sullivan, founding editor of SearchEngineLand.com.
“I don’t think anybody would want to go back to a card catalog system that some will remember,” Sullivan said. “Google Books allows us to search books in the same way we can search across the entire Web and who wouldn’t think that that’s a benefit for everyone?”