Google Books and Feist-y Fair Use

 Posted by on October 16, 2015
Oct 162015
Photo by Beth (CC-NC-ND)

Photo: Beth (CC-NC-ND)

Judge Pierre Leval’s opinion today in the Google Books case offers another fascinating glimpse into the richness of his thinking about the concept of fair use. (For more, be sure to attend (or stream) his talk at WCL’s Fourth Annual Peter Jaszi Lecture on November 12.) A law review article by then-district court Judge Leval was the source of the now-dominant theory of fair use, grounded in a concept he called “transformative use,” an idea later adopted wholesale by the Supreme Court in Campbell v. Acuff-Rose and spread throughout the land in subsequent cases.

Although the outcome in Google Books (Google wins, duh) was obvious to anyone whose paycheck didn’t depend on their believing otherwise, the discussion that gets us there sheds light on a host of hot fair use topics in ways that courts and copyright wonks will be citing and unpacking for years to come. In a later post I’d like to explore the ways Judge Leval managed to weigh in on a remarkable number of fair use controversies over the course of a single opinion.

For now, though, rather than take a grand tour of all the nooks and crannies of the opinion, in this post I want to make my first foray into the text by highlighting one big idea that I think is woven throughout the fabric of the opinion in a fundamental way: the distinction between protected expression and unprotected facts.

It is an axiom of US copyright law that the author’s monopoly protects her expressive contributions to a work, but does not protect any facts (or ideas) that might be embedded in the work. For example, where two authors write about the same underlying historical event, the first author may prevent the second author from copying her prose (these were the facts of the pioneering fair use decision Folsom v. Marsh, in which verbatim copying from an exhaustive biography of George Washington to create a second, shorter biography was found to be infringing), but she certainly can’t prevent the second author from relying on facts uncovered in her research (as, for example, in Miller v. Universal, where an author’s “research” on a famous kidnapping case was held not to be the proper subject of copyright protection as against a second author). Facts are not created by anyone (pace post-modernism etc.), and are no one’s property, according to copyright law. And, crucially, wrapping facts in a skin of your copyrighted expression is not enough to give you rights in the underlying facts.

Despite the bedrock status of this proposition, and its seemingly clear embodiment in the statute at § 102(b) of the Copyright Act, courts had trouble resisting the impulse to reward “sweat of the brow” or “industrious collection” by granting copyright protection to facts first revealed in a work of authorship. It wasn’t until the 1991 resolution of a dispute over the wholesale copying of names and numbers in telephone directories in Feist v. Rural Telephone Serv. Co. that the Supreme Court gave us a strong, clear articulation of both the principle and its deep Constitutional foundations:

The mere fact that a work is copyrighted does not mean that every element of the work may be protected. Originality remains the sine qua non of copyright; accordingly, copyright protection may extend only to those components of a work that are original to the author. [citations omitted] Thus, if the compilation author clothes facts with an original collocation of words, he or she may be able to claim a copyright in this written expression. Others may copy the underlying facts from the publication, but not the precise words used to present them. [snip] It may seem unfair that much of the fruit of the compiler’s labor may be used by others without compensation. As Justice Brennan has correctly observed, however, this is not “some unforeseen byproduct of a statutory scheme.” Harper & Row, 471 U. S., at 589 (dissenting opinion). It is, rather, “the essence of copyright,” ibid., and a constitutional requirement. The primary objective of copyright is not to reward the labor of authors, but “[t]o promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts.” Art. I, § 8, cl. 8. Accord, Twentieth Century Music Corp. v. Aiken, 422 U. S. 151, 156 (1975). To this end, copyright assures authors the right to their original expression, but encourages others to build freely upon the ideas and information conveyed by a work. Harper & Row, supra, at 556-557. This principle, known as the idea/expression or fact/expression dichotomy, applies to all works of authorship. …This result is neither unfair nor unfortunate. It is the means by which copyright advances the progress of science and art. (Emphases added.)

The Court subsequently called this distinction (also known as the “idea/expression dichotomy”) part of the “traditional contours of copyright” and a “built-in First Amendment safety valve.” This is, in other words, as fundamental a proposition as there can be, grounded in both the Copyright Clause and the First Amendment of the Constitution. To the extent that fact and expression in a protected work can be separated, the facts are free for the taking. Whether it’s a phonebook or a newspaper article, expression is protected, but facts are free.

This bedrock principle manifests itself over and over in Judge Leval’s opinion in the form of his repeated characterization of the Google Books project as “making available information about Plaintiffs’ books.” That is, the stuff that Google ultimately produces and shows to the public (as distinct from what it does “behind the curtain” by feeding full-text copies to its servers) is factual stuff. No one thinks an author has control over information about her books (that the word “Einstein” appears 33 times, etc.). Information about books is comprised of facts, and Feist tells us that copyright law wants facts to flow freely. So does Judge Leval.

And, as any researcher can tell you, the “information about books” revealed by Google Book Search consists of extremely useful facts, access to which will directly and palpably ”promote the Progress of Science” (the Constitutional purpose of copyright). If the law cannot tolerate a statutory monopoly in phone numbers, it certainly can’t tolerate a statutory monopoly in the most powerful card catalog in the history of human inquiry.

But, it turns out that the only way to learn and share those facts, to extract them from the expression in which they subsist, and to build a next-gen card catalog and research corpus, is to do things that ordinarily require the permission of the copyright holder, namely, copying the full text of the works into a computer and displaying to the public contextual snippets as search results. Enter fair use, which shields nominally infringing activity that in fact serves the ends of copyright itself.

Judge Leval deploys the fair use doctrine in this case by weighing two fundamental questions:

  1. Is Google’s purpose transformative, i.e., is it different from the author’s original expressive purpose and does it “serve[] copyright’s goal of enriching public knowledge” by using the protected material to “communicate[] something new and different from the original or expand[] its utility.” And,
  2. Does Google’s use provide the public with a “substitute” in the market for the original works in a way that does “meaningful” “significant” harm to the market for the work?

The ethos of Feist informs these two questions in a fundamental way. First, as mentioned above, Judge Leval finds Google’s purpose to be transformative because of its fundamentally factual, informative character. The core purposes of Google Book Search——to locate relevant books by providing facts about the occurrence of search terms inside the book, and to reveal facts about the occurrence of words and phrases throughout the entire corpus of books——are of course radically different from the expressive purpose(s) of any particular book. And, not only is that purpose different, but it is consonant with the design of copyright itself, which is tailored to facilitate the free circulation of facts. It also serves the ultimate purpose of copyright, which is to “promote the Progress of Science” (where “Science” means all manner of learning and culture). Google Books is transformative because it is Feist-y——it liberates facts from expression in a way that adds to the world’s knowledge and doesn’t implicate the expressive monopoly of authors.

Which brings us to the question of market harm and substitution, which is largely filtered through a Feist-ian lens. In addition to the obvious point that Google Book Search results are not a substitute for access to the underlying books (snippets are too small, and they are impossible to reassemble into the original work), which is certainly of fundamental importance, the court must contend with two other market-based challenges.

First, the Authors Guild argues that some users will find the information they need in snippets, which will forestall sales of the relevant works (either directly to researchers, or to libraries that serve them). The court’s response here is fundamentally Feist-ian: so what? That is, to the extent that the snippet reveals a fact that obviates a researcher’s need to buy a copy of the book containing that fact, that is all to the good.

Leval observes, by way of example, that a student looking for the year Franklin D. Roosevelt was first stricken by polio can find it in a snippet from Richard Thayer Goldberg’s The Making of Franklin D. Roosevelt (1981) that is returned from a Google Book Search query. The student will not have to buy Goldberg’s book, or even check it out from a library, to find this fact. And that’s fine; this is not a “harm” that copyright cares about. Judge Leval writes:

[The author’s] copyright does not extend to the facts communicated by his book. It protects only the author’s manner of expression.… Google would be entitled, without infringement of [the author’s] copyright, to answer the student’s query about the year Roosevelt was afflicted, taking the information from Goldberg’s book.The fact that, in the case of the student’s snippet search, the information came embedded in three lines of Goldberg’s writing, which were superfluous to the searcher’s needs, would not change the taking of an unprotected fact into a copyright infringement.

Or, as Justice O’Connor says in Feist, “This result is neither unfair nor unfortunate.”

The Authors Guild also argues that Google’s scanning harms a “derivative” market, namely the market for creating search databases and displaying snippets. At first glance, this may be the Guild’s most compelling argument. Maybe Google Book Search users never see the entire work, but of course Google itself necessarily does copy the full text, so the status of Google’s use behind the curtain could be less clear.

Judge Leval doesn’t think so. To the contrary, he says “There is no merit to this argument.” Why? Because

“The copyright resulting from the Plaintiffs’ authorship of their works does not include an exclusive right to furnish the kind of information about the works that Google’s programs provide to the public. For substantially the same reasons, the copyright that protects Plaintiffs’ works does not include an exclusive derivative right to supply such information through query of a digitized copy.”

Judge Leval goes on to argue that the right to create derivative works is limited to works that “re-present the protected aspects of the original work, i.e., its expressive content, converted into an altered form.” (slip-op at 38). As has already been established, the Google Book Search project does no such thing. Indeed, Judge Leval distinguishes Google Book Search from other projects that have sought permission to display shorter portions of books or songs (as in ringtones) by observing that,

Unlike the reading experience that the Google Partners program or the Amazon Search Inside the Book program provides [or the listening experience that Ringtones provide], the snippet function does not provide searchers with any meaningful experience of the expressive content of the book. (emphasis added)

So, the fact/expression dichotomy, defended most memorably in Feist, does a lot of work in the Google Books opinion. And that is a good thing, because it grounds this momentous decision in fundamental copyright and Constitutional principles with roots as deep and broad as the fair use doctrine itself. The Authors Guild has already announced its intention to appeal the decision to the Supreme Court. It is hardly certain that the Court will take the case, but if it did, Judge Leval has done an excellent job insulating his opinion against challenge by invoking these core principles.

The importance of the fact-expression dichotomy in these kinds of cases was first recognized by Matthew Sag in a series of law review articles, and then developed into a powerful amicus brief in collaboration with NYU Law prof Jason Schultz and digital humanities scholar Matthew Jockers. While these principles are fundamental, there is little doubt that their work helped push Judge Leval and others to adopt them in the way that they did. Kudos!!