The basic facts of the case are recounted in many places, but the Google Books project has involved building a digital library of millions of full-text books, many still under copyright protection, and allowing the public to search the database. The public access to the collection, however, is sharply restricted. A search of keywords will retrieve only brief “snippets” from the books, with links to retailers and libraries where readers may find and acquire the full book. The court ruled that Google was acting within fair use when it built the digital collection and provided public searchability.
Many of us will long debate the significance of this ruling and its implications. The court of appeals will necessarily add to the conversation. For now, however, this ruling joins court decisions about HathiTrust and electronic reserves in demonstrating that even extensive digitization can be within fair use where the social benefits are strong and the harm to rightsholders is constrained. There will be more to come as we transition into a new era of copyright, technology, and even reading.