A federal judge granted class certification to authors challenging Google Inc. over its plans for the world's largest digital library Thursday, finding it more sensible to have a single legal action than scores of individual lawsuits.
Judge Denny Chin said in a written ruling that class action is "more efficient and effective than requiring thousands of authors to sue individually." He added that requiring each author to sue Google would risk disparate results in nearly identical lawsuits and exponentially increase the cost of litigation.
He also rejected Google's request to toss from the case The Authors Guild, which had sought class certification. Google already has scanned more than 20 million books for the project.
In a statement, Mountain View, Calif.-based Google said: "As we've said all along, we are confident that Google Books is fully compliant with copyright law. Today's decision doesn't determine the underlying merits of the case, nor does it resolve the lawsuit." Paul Aiken, executive director of the Authors Guild, said: "This is a key ruling for all U.S. authors whose literary works have been appropriated by Google."
In his decision, Chin said Google hadn't pointed to any legal or factual argument by The Authors Guild that would undermine the copyright claim of any other class member.
"Indeed, it is possible that some authors who `approve' of Google's actions might still choose to join the class action," he said.
The class action status pertains to a lawsuit that The Authors Guild brought nearly seven years ago questioning whether Google's creation of its digital library constituted copyright infringement and whether it could be argued that Google was making "fair use" of copyright material by offering snippets of works in its online library.
"These issues are largely subject to `generalized proof,'" the judge wrote. "Every potential class member's claim arises out of Google's uniform, widespread practice of copying entire books without permission of the copyright holder and displaying snippets of those books for search. Whether this practice constitutes copyright infringement does not depend on any individualized considerations."
He added that since the plaintiffs were only seeking statutory damages, there was no need for any individualized inquiry into the harm suffered.
In rejecting an earlier settlement last year, Chin noted that many of the hundreds of objections would vanish if the library only consisted of works in which authors and publishers had granted their permission rather than a system in which books were included unless Google was informed that an author or publisher objected.
The judge has supported the overall goal, saying a digital universe for books would let libraries, schools, researchers and disadvantaged populations gain access to far more books, would help authors and publishers find new audiences and new sources of income and would allow older books -- particularly those out of print -- to be preserved and given new life.
Associated Press writer Michael Liedtke in San Francisco contributed to this story.