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With Google's book scan project declared legal, we may be a step closer to a universal library
Since the legendary Library of Alexandria was destroyed two millennia ago, the goal to recreate it by creating a repository of all civilisational knowledge found its most achievable moment in the internet age. When Google embarked on a book-scanning project in 2004, the idea captured the imagination of many. Could the dream finally be coming to fruition? Making humanity's entire heritage universallyaccessible is an incredibly ambitious task, not least because of copyright law. After eight years of legal battle, however, Google has been handed a resounding win by a US federal court, which has ruled that this endeavour "provides significant public benefits" and constitutes fair use.
The lawsuit against Google was filed by the Authors Guild in 2005, in large part because the former did not bother with obtaining permission from copyright holders before beginning with the project. While the legal wrangles have continued — often with serious setbacks for Google, such as in 2011, when the same judge who has now ruled in its favour threw out a settlement between the publishing industry and Google to compensate rights holders for their work — the technology giant continued to scan more than 25 million books, the majority of which are out of print. Most of these are available not as full text, but in snippets, which Judge Chin recognised in his ruling while testing for fair use.
Judge Chin deemed the project to be transformative, which means that it adds value or uses the works in a different and beneficial way. This opens the door for other entities to undertake similar projects — the non-profit Digital Public Library of America, launched in April this year, provides one alternative. Either way, this judgment marks the liberation of a vast corpus of knowledge for the common good.