US court throws out class-action status in Google books case, for now

The company's 'fair use' defense needs further consideration, a ruling says

A U.S. court has decided that the class-action designation of the copyright lawsuit brought against Google by the Authors Guild over the company's book-scanning project was "premature," and has returned the suit to a lower court for consideration of fair use issues.

The Authors Guild filed its suit in 2005, arguing that Google's book-scanning project, which lets users search for and read the text of certain books online, has hurt millions of authors whose works have been digitized. Judge Denny Chin, formerly of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, allowed the class-action lawsuit to move forward last year.

But in a ruling filed Monday by three circuit judges in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, it was decided that Judge Chin erred in assigning class-action status to the case and that the merits of Google's fair use defense need further consideration.

Google maintains that it is not violating copyright law, and that the "fair use" principle, which allows for reproduction of limited copyrighted material without permission, protects its actions.

The fair use defense "might moot the litigation," the ruling states.

Google also claims that the plaintiffs are unable to "fairly and adequately protect the interests of the class," according to the ruling, because many authors benefit from the company's Library Project and oppose the Authors Guild's litigious efforts.

More than 20 million books have been scanned and indexed through the Library Project of Google's Books search tool since it was started in 2004, making "snippets" of most books available upon a user's search.

This argument -- that the plaintiffs are not representative of the certified class -- "may carry some force," the judges said.

But, "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," they argued in the ruling.

"We are delighted by the court's decision," a Google spokesman said in a statement. "The investment we have made in Google Books benefits readers and writers alike, helping unlock the great pool of knowledge contained in millions of books."

Seth Waxman, an attorney for Google in the case, did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Robert LaRocca, an attorney for the Authors Guild, could not be reached.

Last September, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit granted a stay in the case while it reviewed Judge Chin's decision to grant class-action status to the authors.

Zach Miners covers social networking, search and general technology news for IDG News Service. Follow Zach on Twitter at @zachminers. Zach's e-mail address is zach_miners@idg.com

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