Authors fail in appeal against Google Books

US Supreme Court rejects challenge that digital library infringes copyright

WASHINGTON • The US Supreme Court has refused to revive a challenge to Google's digital library of millions of books, turning down an appeal from authors who said the project amounted to copyright infringement on a mass scale.

The Supreme Court's brief order on Monday left in place an appeals court decision that the project was a "fair use" of the authors' work, ending a legal saga that had lasted more than a decade.

In 2004, Google started building a vast digital library, scanning and digitising more than 20 million books from the collections of major research libraries. Readers can search the resulting database, Google Books, for keywords or phrases and read some snippets of text.

The Authors Guild and several writers sued Google in 2005, saying the digital library was a commercial venture that drove down sales of their work.

Their petition to the court also included a brief signed by a group of prominent authors, including playwright Tony Kushner, historian Taylor Branch and novelists Margaret Atwood, J.M. Coetzee, Peter Carey and Ursula K. Le Guin.

In a statement on Monday, the Authors Guild said the court's decision to not hear the case would leave writers vulnerable to copyright infringement. In its own brief, Google said both readers and writers were better off thanks to its efforts.

"Google Books gives readers a dramatically new way to find books of interest," the brief said. "By formulating their own text queries and reviewing search results, users can identify, determine the relevance of and locate books they might otherwise never have found."

As is their custom, the justices gave no reasons for declining to hear the case.

Another case before the court on Monday appears to have its eight judges evenly divided. They weighed whether to revive President Barack Obama's plan to spare from deportation roughly four million immigrants in the country illegally, raising the possibility of a deadlock that would block the programme. A 4-4 split would leave in place a 2015 lower-court ruling that threw out Mr Obama's executive action, which bypassed the Republican-led Congress.

The court is divided ideologically, following the February death of conservative Antonin Scalia.

Based on questions during oral argument in a case that tests the limits of presidential powers, the court's four liberal justices seemed poised to back Mr Obama, while the four conservatives were more sceptical.

If the court is to avoid a 4-4 split, Chief Justice John Roberts would seem the most likely member of the conservative bloc to join the liberals in voting to reinstate the programme. One possible compromise could be that the court could uphold Mr Obama's plan while leaving some legal questions unresolved.

The case pits Mr Obama against 26 states, led by Texas, that filed suit to block his immigration plan. Texas said it had "standing" to sue because it would be hurt by the additional costs of providing driver's licences to those who obtain legal status.

Justice Roberts asked tough questions of the Obama administration on that point, but seemed less aggressive on whether the government had the authority to implement the programme.

Texas Solicitor-General Scott Keller conceded that the federal government has the power to defer action on deportations to large groups of people, but said the government cannot grant them work permits or other benefits.

US Solicitor-General Donald Verrilli argued that the federal government has regularly launched programmes aimed at giving large groups of immigrants temporary legal status as part of its role of establishing enforcement priorities due to limited resources.

The court's ruling is due by the end of June.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 20, 2016, with the headline 'Authors fail in appeal against Google Books'. Subscribe