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Google Books class action lawsuit can go ahead, judge rules

In a ruling that’s bad news for Google but good news for… well, pretty much anyone who’s ever released a book or considered doing so, a federal judge today decided that groups representing authors and photographers would be allowed to go ahead with a class action against the search giant.

The ruling comes after Google had tried to get both the Authors’ Guild and a group of photographers dismissed from the class action suit against the company’s current plan to create the world’s largest digital library by scanning print editions without offering royalties to authors or illustrators. Google has tried to claim that their plan is covered by Fair Use law, something strongly argued against by many authors and representative groups.

Now, Judge Denny Chin has issued a written decision that class action against Google would be “more efficient and effective than requiring thousands of authors to sue individually.” More than simple efficiency, he wrote, a class action lawsuit is something Google practically invited with its decision to scan works en masse in the first place:

Given the sweeping and undiscriminating nature of Google’s unauthorized copying, it would be unjust to require that each affected association member litigate his claim individually. When Google copied works, it did not conduct an inquiry into the copyright ownership of each work; nor did it conduct an individualized evaluation as to whether posting “snippets” of a particular work would constitute “fair use.” It copied and made search results available en masse. Google cannot now turn the tables and ask the Court to require each copyright holder to come forward individually and assert rights in a separate action. Because Google treated the copyright holders as a group, the copyright holders should be able to litigate on a group basis.

It’s a decision that Google, unsurprisingly, doesn’t seem to be too interested in. “As we’ve said all along, we are confident that Google Books is fully compliant with copyright law. Today’s decision doesn’t determine the underlying merits of the case, nor does it resolve the lawsuit,” said a spokesperson for the company. The Authors’ Guild, however, seems much more excited about the result, calling it “a key ruling for all US authors whose literary works have been appropriated by Google,” adding that “Google’s liability for copyright infringement has not yet been determined by the court… If Google is found liable for infringement, copyright law prescribes statutory damages for willful infringement at not less than $750 and not more than $30,000 per work.”

With more than 12 million books estimated already digitized as part of the project, that could work out as a staggering $360 billion payout if Google loses the lawsuit and is required to pay full damages on each book.

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