Court Certifies Certain Authors as a Class in Google Books Dispute

On May 31, 2012, Circuit Judge Denny Chin (now sitting on the Second Circuit Court of Appeals) entered an order certifying a class of authors to proceed in the case as a class. The Authors Guild et al. v. Google, Inc., No. 05 Civ. 8136, slip op. (May 31, 2012). In that case, two motions were decided: the first was Google’s motion to dismiss the association plaintiffs (i.e., The Authors Guild) alleging that they lacked standing to sue. The second was a motion for class certification filed by three representatives (individual members of the association) so that the case could proceed as a class, and that individual class plaintiffs did not need to prove their cases individually. 

In both cases, Google’s argument was the same: that individualized analysis of its “fair use” defense was required, thus rendering the Authors Guild unable to participate, and the individual class members unable to proceed as a group, sharing common interests. In both respects, the court was unpersuaded by Google’s arguments, and ruled against Google.

Motion to Dismiss Authors Guild Claims, Arguing Lack of Standing

In the context of its motion to dismiss, the Court found that “the associations’ claims of copyright infringement and requests for injunctive relief will not require the participation of each individual association member.” Id. at 11. Indeed, the Guild asserted copyright claims on behalf of its members, alleging very broadly that “Google engaged, and continues to engage, in the wholesale copying of books (including an images contained therein) without the consent of the copyright holders, many of whom are association members.” Id. at 12. The Authors Guild only sought injunctive relief (in other words, stop the copying and republishing) and declaratory relief (in other words, for a “declaration” that Google’s activities were unlawful). It is not seeking monetary damages. Notably, “Google does not deny that it copied millions of books – original works – without the permission of the copyright holders. Furthermore, it has displayed snippets of text from these books as well as images contained in the books, without the copyright holders’ permission.”
Id. at 13 (emphasis added).

When it argued that individual participation by association members would be required to respond to Google’s fair use analysis, Google focused on the requirement to prove “the nature of the copyrighted work” and “the effect of the use upon the potential market for or value of the copyrighted work.” Id. at 15. Specifically, Google argued that the difference for fair use purposes between a non-fictional and a fictional work was critical, thus requiring individual proof of market impact. Id. The court was unpersuaded, concluding that it was possible to address these issues by grouping similar works together, thus creating subgroups. Id.

Importantly, the court noted that Google only objected to the Authors Guild’s participation in this case (which it originated seven years ago), was when it became apparent in 2011 that no settlement would be reached. Id. at 17.

The court’s most telling conclusion in this opinion is the following:

. . . [G]iven the sweeping and undiscriminating nature of Google’s unauthorized copying, it would be unjust to require that each affected association member litigate his claim individually. When Google copied works, it did not conduct an inquiry into the copyright ownership of each work; nor did it conduct an individualized evaluation as to whether posting “snippets” of a particular work would constitute “fair use.” It copied and made search results available en masse. Google cannot now turn the tables and ask the Court to require each copyright holder to come forward individually and assert rights in a separate action. Because Google treated the copyright holders as a group, the copyright holders should be able to litigate on a group basis.

Id. at 18 (emphasis added).

Motion for Class Certification

In similar fashion, the court discounted Google’s opposition to the motion for class certification filed by Authors Guild members seeking to participate in this case as representatives of a class. Id. at 18-25 (discussion of applicable precedent), 25-31 (application of precedent to the case at hand). Again Google argued that its fair use argument had to be considered as to each plaintiff, on an individual basis. It argued that “most [ ] class members perceive [Google’s copying of their work] as benefit.” Id. at 27. It also submitted the results of a survey it conducted in support of its argument that factual disputes among putative class members would make the class action process “not adequate” to handle this dispute, and therefore argued that class certification should be denied. Id.

This survey revealed that 58% of the authors surveyed (i.e., 500 authors) “approved” of Google’s scanning of their works for search purposes, and about 19% of those surveyed (about 170 authors) “feel that they benefit financially, or would benefit financially, from Google scanning their books and making snippets available in search.” Id.

The court did not discuss the basis for the survey, how the participants were selected, its statistical significance or what percentage of the total putative class was surveyed. Elsewhere in the opinion, however, the court reported the undisputed fact that Google has already scanned more than 12 million books. Id. at 2 (emphasis added). Leaving aside that many of these may be in the public domain, the court also noted that “millions of the books scanned by Google were still under copyright.”  Id. at 3 (emphasis added). Even if you assume that half of these books were written by authors who had written more than one book, 500 authors seems to be a very low sample on which to rely for a survey. (More details about the survey are likely continued in the declaration that Google submitted with the survey evidence, but I have not accessed it.)

Regardless, the court remained unpersuaded by Google’s survey evidence, calling it “without merit.” Pointedly, the court noted that Google had not identified any conflicts between the class members and the rest of the class and concluded that the fact that “some class members may prefer to leave the alleged violation of their rights unremedied is not as basis for finding the lead plaintiffs inadequate.” Id. 28. Indeed, any class member who feels that he or she does not want to participate in the class action may voluntarily exclude themselves by opting out.

Google’s final argument – that some of the publishing contracts which some of these authors may have signed create varying degrees and types of ownership – was similarly rejected. The court found that while these differences might exist, they did not predominate over the common issues shared by the putative class members. Id. at 31. In response to Google’s argument that the display of snippets of the copyrighted works were promotional use (a beneficial interest held by the publisher, not the author) would facilitate sales, the court noted the absence of any proof that such display actually facilitated sales and admonished, “while these authors may have authorized a publisher to promote their works, they have not authorized Google to do so.” Id.

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