A lawsuit can run on for so long that, even if major issues are still at stake, it can seem dated and even inconsequential by the time it’s resolved. Such is the case with Authors Guild v. Google, which likely came to a conclusion on Friday, more than 10 years after it began. The Second Circuit sided with Google, ruling that the company’s program to scan millions of books, including those still in copyright, was legal.
So much has changed on the Internet, in libraries, and with books in the decade since the Authors Guild first filed suit. In 2005, Google was a relatively young search engine—it had only gone public the previous year—looking to expand its horizon beyond the web. Now Google is part of a conglomerate named Alphabet, and Google Books seems very much like an early, vestigial effort among Alphabet’s larger body of projects, which includes higher-profile ventures like self-driving cars.
Ten years ago there were no Kindles, iPads, or postcard-sized smartphones to read on. Now the growth of e-reading is unmistakable. In 2011, 11 percent of Americans read an ebook; in 2014, 27 percent did. (In the same period, the number of Americans reading a print book fell, from 71 percent to 63 percent.) In the past 12 months, Americans read 120 million ebooks on just one app used by public libraries—an increase of 20 percent from the year before. And while big publishers may be seeing their ebook sales plateau, self-published authors and indie presses—many of them selling directly to readers through Amazon—continue to gain market share, while charging a fraction of what print books cost. With so much of the landscape for digital books forever altered, what does Friday’s decision mean for readers, writers, libraries, and the public?