Google caching not copyright infringement

Suit by plaintiff who “manufactured” claim against Google dismissed on summary judgment.

The Google search engine uses an automated program called the “Googlebot” to crawl the World Wide Web, indexing the information that is contained on billions of pages. During this process, Google makes and analyzes a temporary copy of each page the Googlebot encounters, and stores those copies on the Google servers. These stored copies are referred to as “cached” versions.

For years, Google has provided to its users links not only to the original location of web pages, but also provides links to the cached versions. A cached version shows how a particular page appeared the last time the Googlebot visited it, and also presents the user’s search terms, where they appear on the page, in highlighted text. A cached version may also provide a copy of a page that no longer exists on the server where it was originally published.

People generally agree that Google provides a useful service by making the cached versions available, and most website publishers consent to their pages being indexed in this way. Publishers who do not want Google to index their content can simply add a few lines of HTML to their pages, which instruct the Googlebot not to index those pages. This method is widely known among web developers.

Blake Field is an author who published his own literary works online. Although he knew how to include the HTML in his pages which would prevent the Googlebot from indexing his site, he left out those instructions. Eventually, Google indexed the pages containing Field’s works, and links to cached versions of the pages began showing up in Google search results.

In 2004, Field sued Google in federal court in Nevada. He alleged that by allowing users to download cached versions of his web pages, Google was infringing on the copyright to his literary works. Both Field and Google moved for summary judgment in the case, and the court ruled in favor of Google, dismissing the suit.

Google raised a number of affirmative defenses against Field’s claim of copyright infringement, and the court ruled in Google’s favor on each of them.

Implied license

The court held that Field had impliedly given Google a license to provide cached copies of his works. Of particular importance was the fact that Field knew how to prevent Google from redistributing cached versions of his work, but chose not to enact such measures. The court found that Field instead made a conscious decision to permit the caching. Accordingly, the conduct could be “reasonably interpreted as the grant of a license . . . for that use.”

Estoppel

The court also held that Field was estopped from claiming that Google had engaged in copyright infringement. On this defense, Google successfully demonstrated that (1) Field knew of Google’s allegedly infringing conduct beforehand, (2) Field intended for Google to believe it had a right to cache the pages, (3) Google was unaware of Field’s true intentions, and (4) Google detrimentally relied on Field’s conduct.

Fair use

Perhaps the most provocative portion of the court’s decision comes from its holding that Google’s providing of the cached links was protected under the doctrine of fair use. Looking at the factors set forth in Section 107 of the Copyright Act [17 U.S.C. §107], the court found that the functions served by the cached copies, e.g., showing how a page appeared in the past and highlighting search terms, made them sufficiently transformative of the original use of the pages. Even though Google provided cached copies of the entire works, the court found such use permissible, because “[w]ithout allowing access to the whole of a Web page, the Google Cached link cannot assist Web users (and content owners) by offering access to pages that are otherwise unavailable.” Finally, the court found that there was no evidence that Google’s cached copies adversely affected any market for Field’s works.

Field v. Google, — F.Supp —, No. 04-CV-413 (D.Nev., January 19, 2006).

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