Google Books Lawsuit Lurches Forward

The fate of Google’s massive book scanning project has been up in the air since a legal settlement collapsed last year. New court filings this week suggest a possible end game.

The filings come after the Authors Guild decided in December to restart a class action lawsuit that demands Google (NSDQ: GOOG) pay authors for scanning their works without permission. The case was on hold for years as authors and publishers pursued an ambitious three-way deal to split digital book revenue with Google.

After Judge Denny Chin rejected the deal last March, publishers have not gone forward with their original lawsuit and some have instead struck their own deals with Google.

Google is responding to the revived lawsuit by trying to knock the Authors Guild out of the case on the grounds that it doesn’t have legal standing. If a court agrees, this would force the three remaining individual plaintiffs in the case to continue to wage an expensive legal battle on their own. (Three other individual authors dropped out in January).

In its filing this week, the Authors Guild pushed back:

Google turns fairness on its head when it argues that every individual copyright owner must sue here, rather than the Authors Guild on behalf of its 8,500 members.

Meanwhile, Google filed a separate document to oppose “certification”, the legal green light that allows a class action to go forward. Citing a recent Wal-Mart (NYSE: WMT) case in which the Supreme Court tightened the rules for class actions, Google argued that the authors should not be treated as one group:

As became apparent during the settlement approval process, authors differ in their views about Google Books. New survey evidence shows that many authors directly benefit from the program, and affirmatively approve of the way in which Google has made books easier to find.

So what does this all mean? Google, it seems, is hoping the case will shrivel up if it can remove the Authors’ Guild. If that fails, Google will likely dig in for the long haul on the grounds that any settlement could be prohibitive. At the same time, the company has always claimed that it’s legally allowed to scan books under the law of fair use so long as it only shows snippets to the public.

In the bigger picture, it is worth noting that the ground has shifted considerably since the scanning controversy first erupted. Today, ebooks are everywhere and the out-of-print works that Google is holding have little economic value (aside from improving the company’s search algorithm). Compared to Amazon’s mega-footprint or Apple’s new textbook initiative, the once-feared Google book monopoly no longer feels very daunting.