Google Book Search and Fair Use: Itunes for Authors, or Napster for Books?

Posted: 28 Nov 2006

See all articles by Hannibal Travis

Hannibal Travis

Florida International University College of Law


Google plans to digitize the books from five of the world's biggest libraries into a keyword-searchable book-browsing library. Some publishers and authors allege that this constitutes a massive piracy of their copyrights in books not yet in the public domain. But I argue that Google Book Search may be a fair use for two interrelated reasons: it is unlikely to reduce the sales of printed books, and it promises to improve the marketing of books via an innovative book marketing platform featuring short previews. Books are an experience good in economic parlance, or a product that must be consumed before full information about its contents and quality becomes available. This makes new technologies that are capable of rapidly searching and previewing relevant passages from books a development that the law should encourage, not burden or restrain.

After introducing the topic, I describe Google's ambitious plan to scan and index up to 15 million library books by 2010, and provide short previews of a few lines each to help users decide whether to buy the books or check them out from a library. I then argue that the fair use limitation on exclusive rights has historically protected efforts such as Google's to address the economic problem of marketing experience goods like books, albums, movies, or games, which consumers must decide whether to buy without assessing their quality and characteristics beforehand. Fair use partially resolved this problem by permitting the unauthorized dissemination of extracts of another's work in a catalogue, review, abridgement in a periodical, or other work of criticism or commentary.

The bulk of the Article analyzes the copyright and fair use implications of lawsuits challenging Google Book Search, filed by several publishers and a putative class of up to 8,000 published authors. I contend that by reproducing excerpts from scanned books for the purpose of improving access to information about books on the internet, Google is making a transformative use of the books that should qualify as a fair use. Courts have recognized that copyright owners are not entitled to gain a monopoly over the market for information about their works, or to suppress efforts to improve the public's access to information and high-quality research tools. Google Book Search is distinguishable from prior attempts to disseminate complete copies of protected works, from newspaper articles in the Free Republic case to songs in the Napster and cases. Insofar as most works being scanned by Google have already been published, and are nonfictional and fact-based, these facts also strongly support Google's fair use arguments.

Most importantly, the evidence so far is that Google Book Search will dramatically improve, rather than detract from, the sales of books that it permits users to find, preview, and purchase. Google Book Search has tripled the sales of many books, and other online previews of books have also markedly increased sales. Total book sales are up substantially in the period after Google began scanning copyrighted books, indicating a fair use under the Sony Betamax case and other precedents.

I conclude by analyzing the antitrust implications of the struggle between copyright owners and technology companies for control over digital marketing and distribution technologies. Joint ventures between major copyright holders may be the only viable alternative for the foreseeable future to technology company search technologies such as Google Book Search, just as MusicNet and Movielink proved to be the only viable alternative for many years to peer-to-peer digital media search technologies. Such joint ventures may facilitate price-fixing and suppression of digital media output, dangers that courts considering the legality of Google Book Search should explore carefully. At the same time, I suggest reasons for courts to be skeptical about publishing industry assertions that by scanning books, Google will seize control over all the content in the world.

Keywords: Copyright, Fair, Sony, Arriba, Marketing, Search, Abridgement, Freedom, Speech, Google, Publishing, Book, Books, eBook, eBooks, Scan, Scanning, Antitrust, Digital, Peer, p2p, Napster, iTunes, MusicNet, Movielink, Amazon

JEL Classification: K21, O34, M31, M39, A12, K10, K41, K42

Suggested Citation

Travis, Hannibal, Google Book Search and Fair Use: Itunes for Authors, or Napster for Books?. University of Miami Law Review, Vol. 61, pp. 601-681, 2006, Available at SSRN:

Hannibal Travis (Contact Author)

Florida International University College of Law ( email )

11200 SW 8th St.
RDB Hall 1097
Miami, FL 33199
United States

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