Not long ago e-book publishers felt totally eclipsed from widespread public exposure, sidelined by the print publishing industry and ignored by the mainstream media. When electronic books were mentioned, they were treated as a novelty, not a serious contender. But all of that has changed, as was confirmed again this month when e-books were a topic that played prominently across the media world.
Two particular stories made headlines. One had to do with the ongoing battle between e-book publishers and Amazon, the world’s biggest book seller, over pricing. That’s a negotiation that we can expect to go on for a while until the dispute is eventually resolved by finding some acceptable middle ground. But the other disagreement, over Google’s practice of scanning millions of library books without permission from individual authors, did get some closure because of a landmark ruling issued by the 2nd US Circuit Court of Appeals.
Google vs. the Authors Guild and Others
The federal appeals court ruled that universities were not at fault when they let by Google digitally reproduce books in their vast libraries. The Authors Guild and other groups had argued that the 13 universities named in the lawsuit allowed the reproduction of more than 10 million works in violation of copyright laws. The decision is just the most recent in a series of rulings regarding copyright law and how it applies to Google’s cataloguing of titles by scanning them and making digital versions. The ruling this time was unanimous, and the Author’s Guild has not indicated whether or not it will try to appeal the decision in a higher court.
Fair Use Doctrine
The libraries, which included those at the University of California, the University of Michigan, Cornell University, and Indiana University, cited their right to allow the book reproduction under a legal precedent known as the “fair use doctrine.” The fair use doctrine allows exceptions or a defense against charges of copyright infringement, and typically applies to situations where it can argued that the copying of materials is done for reasons such as teaching, research, news reporting, parody, or scholarship.
Converting Paper to Electricity
The crux of this particular case came down to the fact that before a library can allow people to conduct electronic searches of books, digital copies of those books must be created. The digitization process thus makes it possible to do keyword searches of texts, a critical step in conducting research. Furthermore, the court ruled that making entire volumes available to those who would otherwise not have access to them due to a disability was a valid and legitimate practice under the fair use doctrine.
The court went on to explain that it was also reasonable under the fair use doctrine to allow the reproduction and digitization of the books to mitigate loss in the event of a disaster. Books in print can be destroyed by a flood or fire, for example, whereas digital copies can be protected and preserved in ways that let them survive that kind of natural catastrophe.
e-Book Access for those with Print Disabilities
Many people don’t realize that digital books solve a serious challenge for those who are “print disabled.” While we may be very familiar with disabilities that limit access to buildings for people in wheelchairs, for example, the general public is less aware that there are millions of people who cannot readily access printed text, whether because of blindness, arthritis, dyslexia, cerebral palsy, upper spinal cord injury, or other conditions. They can, however, use digital devices and e-book technology to circumvent that obstacle and read books in an electronic format.
The defendants in this case argued that the compelling reason they needed to copy content from the books was so that people with disabilities could have fair and equal access to that content. The court agreed that their purpose was valid and legal. To many people who are supporters of electronic publication that is a victory for those who live with disabilities as well as a triumph for the e-book industry, which proved once again that the e-book format offers uniquely valuable and versatile potential not possible with traditional paper-based print media.