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Supreme Court rejects challenge to Google book-scanning project

The U.S. Supreme Court has refused to hear a copyright infringement case against Google for its now 12-year-old effort to scan books and allow people to search them online.

The Supreme Court, without comment, rejected an appeal by the Authors Guild to overturn an October 2015 appeals court ruling finding that the massive Google books program falls under so-called fair use exemptions to copyright protections.

Fair use allows limited reuse of copyright-protected works for criticism, parodies, education, and other purposes. Fair use also allows for people to transform the original content into a new type of work, and that transformation of the printed books was part of Google's argument in this case.

The Authors Guild had argued that Google's "wholesale" copying of copyright-protected books would generate profits for the company at the expense of authors. The group wanted the Supreme Court to "recognize Google’s seizure of property as a serious threat to writers and their livelihoods, one which will affect the depth, resilience, and vitality of our intellectual culture," the Authors Guild said on a webpage detailing the case.

The Supreme Court decision gave authors a "colossal loss," Authors Guild President Roxana Robinson said in a statement. The guild still believes Google's effort was "a plain and brazen violation of copyright law."

Google Books project may lead to a short-term public benefit, but it will come at the expense of the future vitality of U.S. culture, Robinson added. "The denial of review is further proof that we're witnessing a vast redistribution of wealth from the creative sector to the tech sector, not only with books, but across the spectrum of the arts," she said.

Google wasn't immediately available for comment.

The Copyright Alliance, a trade group representing copyright holders, said it was disappointed with the Supreme Court's decision. The high court has allowed an appeals court decision that "dramatically expands the boundaries" of fair use to stand, Copyright Alliance CEO Keith Kupferschmid wrote in a blog post.

The appeals court "held that Google did not need the consent of the copyright holders of 20 million books to digitize those books in order to create a publicly searchable database containing those and other books," Kupferschmid added. "The court’s holding was based on a dubious finding that Google’s mass digitizing effort was a fair use because the Google Books project conveys 'information' about the works to users and therefore transforms the books."

The Google Books case wound through the courts since 2005, when the Authors Guild first sued Google. The two sides reached a proposed US $125 million settlement in 2008, but a judge later rejected the deal over concerns that it would give Google a monopoly over scanned books.

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