Is the future a trade between convenience and privacy?

This TechCrunch piece talks about how (predictably) Google wants to build the “ultimate personal assistant.” With Google’s collecting user preferences cross-platform and applying algorithms to ascertain intentions, getting around in the world, purchasing things, and interacting with others could get a lot easier.

But at what cost? The success of any platform that becomes a personal assistant in the cloud would depend entirely on the collection of vast amounts of information about the individual. And since Google makes its fortunes on advertising, there is no reason to be confident that the information gathered will not be put to uses other than adding conveniences to the user’s life. Simply stated, the platform is privacy-destroying.

What if one wants to opt-out of this utopically convenient future? Might such a person be unfairly disadvantaged by, for example, choosing to undertake tasks the “old fashioned” way, unassisted by the privacy eviscerating tools? This points to larger questions about augmented reality. As a society, will we implement regulations to level the playing field among those who are not augmented versus those who are? Questions of social justice in the future may take a different tone.

What the Google Book Search fair use decision means for innovators

(This is a slightly modified cross-post from my firm’s blog.)

Yesterday the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York granted Google’s motion for summary judgment in the 8-year-running Google Book Search case. The court held that Google’s copying and display of in-copyright books is a noninfringing fair use. The decision is a signal that modern copyright law, despite its many flaws that become apparent in the digital age, will make at least some room for technological innovation.

About the Case

In 2004, Google announced plans to scan the full text of millions of books, both in the public domain and in-copyright, and to make those scanned works searchable on the web. For in-copyright works, Google would make “snippets,” each comprised of 1/8 of a page, available as search results for keywords contained within them.

Plaintiffs (some individual authors and the Authors Guild) sued Google in 2005 for copyright infringement. The parties reached a settlement agreement in 2008, but the court later rejected that agreement. Earlier this year, plaintiffs suffered a setback when the Second Circuit held that a class action was not appropriate because of the fact-specific fair use questions.

Back at the trial court level, the parties cross-moved for summary judgment. Google argued, as it had from the outset, that the scanning and display is a noninfringing fair use. The court granted Google’s summary judgment motion.

The Court’s Decision

Fair use is an affirmative defense to copyright infringement. Section 107 of the Copyright Act guides a court on how to determine whether a defendant’s use is fair. That provision instructs that it is not copyright infringement if one uses another’s work “for purposes such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching (including multiple copies for classroom use), scholarship, or research.” It goes on to provide that a court should apply four non-exhaustive factors in the fair use analysis:

  • the purpose and character of the use, including whether such use is of a commercial nature or is for nonprofit educational purposes;
  • the nature of the copyrighted work;
  • the amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole; and
  • the effect of the use upon the potential market for or value of the copyrighted work.

In this case, the court began its fair use analysis by emphasizing how “[c]opyright law seeks to [provide] sufficient protection to authors and inventors to stimulate creative activity, while at the same time permitting others to utilize protected works to advance the progress of the arts and sciences.”

In applying the fair use factors, the court focused extensively on the first factor (purpose and character of the use). In this analysis, the court looked to the key question of whether the use was “transformative.” Borrowing from the Supreme Court, the court looked to whether Google’s scanning and display of the works “superseded” or “supplanted” the original creation, or whether the conduct:

instead adds something new, with a further purpose or different character, altering the first with new expression, meaning, or message; it asks, in other words, whether and to what extent the new work is “transformative.”

The court found the use to be transformative, comparing the “snippets” to thumbnail images, which were found to be protected by fair use in a 2003 case (Kelly v. Arriba Soft) involving an image search engine. Moreover, the court’s opinion noted the extensive benefits occasioned by Google’s efforts, including:

  • The creation of new and efficient ways for readers and researchers to find books.
  • The increased ability to conduct “data mining” or “text mining” research. For example, using the tool, researchers can examine word frequencies, syntactic patterns, and thematic markers to consider how literary style has changed over time.
  • The expansion of access to books. In particular, the court noted how traditionally underserved populations will benefit as they gain knowledge of and access to far more books. Digitization facilitates the conversion of books to audio and tactile formats, increasing access for individuals with disabilities.
  • The preservation and “new life” of old and out of print books.

The court acknowledged the idea that Google was engaged in commercial activity through the scanning project. But such fact was not dispositive to the fair use finding. Given the nature of the benefits, the court was satisfied that the purpose and character of the use supported a fair use finding.

On the second fair use factor, the court found that because the works were already published and were non-fiction, the balance tilted in favor of fair use.

The third factor came out “slightly” in Google’s favor. While a copying of all of a work will generally weigh against the defendant in considering the “amount and substantiality of the portion used,” the fact that the search feature would not function properly had the entire work not been scanned, put this factor on Google’s side.

Finally, on the fourth fair use factor — effect on the market — the court rejected plaintiff’s arguments that the scanning and display will negatively affect the sale of plaintiff’s works. Google does not sell the scanned copies, nor would it be feasible or practicable for a user to obtain an entire copy of the work through an assemblage of snippets. In fact, the court noted how the platform will help readers and researchers identify books, thus benefiting authors and publishers. From this, the court found, Google Books will generate new audiences and create new sources of income.

What This Says About Innovation and the Law

Google’s use of technology in this situation was disruptive. It challenged the expectation of copyright holders, who used copyright law to challenge that disruption. It bears noting that in the court’s analysis, it assumed that copyright infringement had taken place. But since fair use is an affirmative defense, it considered whether Google had carried its burden of showing that the circumstances warranted a finding that the use was fair. In this sense, fair use serves as a backstop against copyright ownership extremism. Under these particular circumstances — where Google demonstrated incredible innovation — that backstop provided room for the innovation to take root and grow. Technological innovators should be encouraged.

Fair use questions defeat class certification in Google Book Search case

Last year, the district court judge overseeing the Google Book Search case certified the plaintiff-authors as a class in the action the Authors Guild filed against Google in 2005. Google opposed the motion for class certification, and sought review of the issue with the Second Circuit. On appeal, the court vacated the class certification, holding that such certification was premature, given Google’s anticipated fair use arguments. The per curiam opinion provided that:

we believe that the resolution of Google’s fair use defense in the first instance will necessarily inform and perhaps moot our analysis of many class certification issues, including those regarding the commonality of plaintiffs’ injuries, the typicality of their claims, and the predominance of common questions of law or fact

Given that fair use is a fact-specific analysis, this decision seems sensible. And the decision gives Google a powerful new lever in settlement talks — litigation of the copyright claims on the merits just got a lot more expensive for the Authors Guild plaintiffs.

Authors Guild, Inc. v. Google Inc., — F.3d —, 2013 WL 3286232 (2nd Cir. July 1, 2013)

Email privacy is weak even with court oversight

Huntington Ingalls Inc. v. Doe, 2012 WL 5897483 (N.D. Cal. November 21, 2012)

A federal court in California has allowed a party to subpoena Google to learn the identity of a Gmail account owner, even though that owner did nothing to involve himself in the dispute.

A contractor that plaintiff hired accidentally emailed “property” belonging to plaintiff to the wrong email address. (The court’s opinion is not clear on the nature of this “property,” but we are safe in assuming it was some sort of proprietary information.) Plaintiff sent messages to the Gmail account seeking return of the property, but the unknown account owner did not respond.

Plaintiff filed suit in federal court against the anonymous account holder (John Doe) seeking declaratory and injunctive relief (i.e., to get the property back). Since plaintiff did not know Doe’s identity, it sought expedited discovery so that it could subpoena Google for the identifying information.


The court granted the motion for leave to send the subpoenas. It found that:

  • without the subpoena, plaintiff would have no other way to obtain “this most basic information”
  • the subpoena was the exclusive means available to plaintiff to protect its property interest
  • plaintiff’s proposed procedure guarded Doe’s due process rights by requiring Google to give Doe notice of the subpoena and an opportunity to object

The court’s opinion shows how any privacy interest in one’s email account information is tenuous at best. In this situation, the target of the unmasking efforts was, as they say, minding his own business, not doing anything to inject himself into any dispute.

Moreover, unlike many previous cases in which courts have required the party seeking discovery of an anonymous party’s identity to put forth facts showing it has a good case, there was no claim here that Doe did anything wrong. Instead, it was the sender’s mistake. One could find it unsettling to know that other peoples’ errors could cause a court to order his or her identity to be publicly revealed.

Photo courtesy Flickr user Bart Heird under this Creative Commons license.

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