Transformative or just taking? Lawyers struggle to define fair use in wake of Google Books case

“Fair use” and “transformative use” rulings have shortened the reach of copyright law. As critical as this is to our contemporary technological advances, it still does not address the less-legal, more-ethical zones of plagiarism.


When federal judge Denny Chin declared last fall that Google’s(s goog) decision to scan 20 million books did not violate copyright law, the ruling came as a new high water mark for “transformative use”  — the idea, loosely defined, that it’s okay to use someone else’s creative work if the new work is different enough from the original.

“Google’s use of the copyrighted works is highly transformative,” wrote Chin in a signature passage of a ruling that used the word “transformative” more than a dozen times.

In an era where digital technology is making images ever easier to manipulate, this transformative trend is likely to continue. But not everyone is happy about it. Some artists worry that the idea is making nearly any use a “fair use,” while lawyers wonder if the notion of “transforming” is too simplistic in the first place.

From “Pretty Woman” to 20 million books

“Transformativeness has…

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