The lawsuit is being led by the Authors Guild, the largest society of published writers in the United States, which represents more than 8,000 authors. It accepts that Google has the agreement of some libraries but complains that the authors of the books in those libraries were not consulted.
“This is a plain and brazen violation of copyright law,” said Authors Guild president Nick Taylor on Tuesday. “It's not up to Google or anyone other than the authors, the rightful owners of these copyrights, to decide whether and how their works will be copied.”
Google Print targeted publishers, encouraging them to make the content of their books searchable online. It launched in October 2004 and was extended in December by the Google Print Library Project, a scheme to upload the content of books from the shelves of major US libraries.
A user searching Google Print sees links on the results pages when there are books relevant to his query. Clicking on a title will deliver a page from which the user can either browse the full text of the work – if copyright has expired – or brief excerpts and/or bibliographic data where the work is still protected by copyright. Links to sellers are also provided.
According to Google, the programme will increase the viability of in and out of print books and generate book sales. Users will be able to search across library collections, including out of print books and titles that weren't previously available anywhere but on a library shelf.
The libraries of Harvard, Stanford, the University of Michigan, and the University of Oxford as well as The New York Public Library signed up to the programme. But some publishers have expressed reservations, concerned about how Google would protect the rights of authors and publishers whose books it had scanned.
Under pressure, Google announced in May that it was temporarily halting the scanning of in-copyright works, so that copyright holders could let the firm know if their works should not be scanned.
The Authors Guild has been joined in its lawsuit by former New York Times writer Herbert Mitgang, children’s author Betty Miles and former US Poet Laureate Daniel Hoffman. They filed a class action in a New York federal court, seeking damages and in injunction.
However, in a Google Blog posting, Google’s Vice President for Product Management, Susan Wojcicki, denied any infringement.
“Google doesn’t show even a single page to users who find copyrighted books through this program (unless the copyright holder gives us permission to show more). At most we show only a brief snippet of text where their search term appears, along with basic bibliographic information and several links to online booksellers and libraries,” she said, explaining that this was consistent with the US fair use doctrine that allows a restricted use of copyrighted works.
“We regret that this group chose to sue us over a program that will make millions of books more discoverable to the world,” she added.
When pages from books are displayed in Google Print, the user's copy, save and print functions are disabled.