The Authors Guild Doesn’t Want To Help People “Find Books or Information”

petition for cert with border and commentary

For the last 11 years, the Authors Guild has been engaged in a legal battle against Google. What did Google do? Well, it borrowed 20 million books from the library — 4 million of which were still protected by copyright — and scanned them into a digital database. Then, it made excerpts of these books available to the public through its Google Books Search engine, although authors can request to have their books removed from the “snippet view” function. The Authors Guild sued on behalf of its members, alleging copyright infringement.

The Authors Guild lost the case in 2013 at the district court level, and then again in 2015 at the circuit court level. Now, they want to see whether the U.S. Supreme Court will have a different opinion (our highest court has not yet decided whether it will hear the case).

In their petition for certiorari, the Authors Guild claims that the Second Circuit incorrectly affirmed the District Court’s grant of summary judgment in favor of Google. The court determined that Google’s conduct constituted a “transformative use” of the copyrighted works, making it a “fair use” exception to copyright protection. As the Second Circuit concluded:

Google’s making of a digital copy to provide a search function is a transformative use, which augments public knowledge by making available information about Plaintiffs’ books without providing the public with a substantial substitute for matter protected by the Plaintiffs’ copyright interests in the original works or derivatives of them.

The Second Circuit was similarly unconvinced that Google’s “overall profit motivation” was sufficient to deny “its highly convincing transformative purpose” and “the absence of significant substitutive competition.” Put simply, the Second Circuit held that Google Books gives readers access to far more information about those books than they had before without actually serving as a substitute for buying the books themselves.

Appalled, the Authors Guild argue in their petition for cert that the Second Circuit was wrong to find that copying entire books and displaying portions of them —which they claim “involv[es] no new expression”— should be “immunized as ‘transformative [simply because] it provides sufficient social benefits… like helping people find books or information.”

Members of the public, however, aren’t the only ones who benefit from Google’s search engine. The Authors Guild’s members do too. This is how the Authors Guild describes what Google has done (in the petition for cert):

From the Authors Gild Petition about the excerpts

Did you notice that last line? Google includes links to where the book may be purchased after enticing users with excerpts (not the entire book). That sounds like advertising to me. A lawsuit is certainly a funny way for the Authors Guild to thank Google for it.


*The Second Circuit also concluded that the Authors Guild did not have standing to sue Google.

**According to The Guardian: “The Authors Guild’s move for an appeal is also backed by publishers Elsevier and Hachette, the American Society of Journalists and Authors, the US Copyright Alliance and the Copyright Clearance Centre.”

***For another head-scratching moment courtesy of the Authors Guild, see Author Scott Turow’s Red-Baiting Rant. (Turow was the President of the Authors Guild).


  1. I use Google Books a lot when I’m researching topics, and it was invaluable when I was studying for my degree. The search function is great!

    However, there are many times when I’ve quoted from an academic book via Google Books without purchasing the actual book, so in some respects I can see why some authors might not want their books on there. Then again, if Google Books didn’t exist, would I have gone out and bought said academic book? Probably not, given their prohibitive cost for a student budget!

    1. Grace, this describes my situation EXACTLY. I work in educational publishing as both a writer and an editor. Through Google Books, I have access to nonfiction material on a professional level that it is not even worth the time to track down and order through interlibrary loan. And there is no reason for me to purchase the book, partly because that “snippet view” usually equates to an occasional omission of a page, rather than an occasional page being displayed, and partly because the next day or next week I’ll be researching an entirely different topic. I use abstracts of scientific papers in much the same way. If the abstract doesn’t give me enough information, then I dig up a similar paper that does, but is published in full.

      I don’t like that I do this, but it’s a reasonable response to a sticky situation.

  2. Why am I not surprised that Hachette is one of the two publishers to join in this charade? Hachette is the ultimate “victim” in all the new technology it cannot control. Its infantile squabbles all turn into major events, such as its battle with Amazon. Scott Turow was involved in that one too. All this has done is made many authors’ works more expensive than I can afford, which I’m sure pleases the library, but turns off a number of readers like me. It’s too silly, but that’s the way I’ve thought of the publishing industry for the last ten years.

  3. How strange! You’d think they’d want to give up after 11 years. The lawsuit sounds like a huge waste of resources.

  4. This is such a weird case. I mean I’ve used it for any number of reasons including verifying quote page numbers because I’ve lost/sold/donated my copy of the book, or just to see if a book has something I’m looking for before having to read the entire thing! Is it any different than Amazon’s “Look inside” feature in which you can search the whole book too?! (Probably is as I think Amazon’s is an opt in, but it’s the same to me.)

    1. It’s definitely a weird case. It seems like the Authors Guild doesn’t understand how people use the internet. I’ve purchased books that I only learned about because I saw excerpts through Google.

  5. I’ve made use of this search function many times while researching stuff for my books. Google provides an invaluable service, and I have, in fact, purchased several of the books because of it.

    1. The Authors Guild doesn’t seem to understand how people use the Internet. I’ve also purchased books after reading excerpts on Google. To the extent people use the excerpts without buying the book, those people were never going to buy the book anyway. It’s not that different from borrowing it from the library.

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