Web search for nudity is ‘fair use’

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Times Staff Writer

The U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals on Monday reaffirmed its earlier support for the socially redeeming value of searching the Internet for nudie pictures.

The San Francisco court, in reviewing a case it initially considered in May, reiterated its finding that Google could display tiny versions of photographs by Perfect 10 Inc., a Beverly Hills-based adult publisher, in search results, even when those images were copyrighted.

The court focused on the legal question of which party holds the burden of proving whether Google’s use of Perfect 10’s images constituted a “fair use” under copyright law. Fair use is a defense that allows the use of copyrighted works, under certain circumstances, without the owner’s consent.


The appeals court initially said Perfect 10 had the burden of proving that Google couldn’t make its case. It corrected itself Monday, saying it was up to Google to articulate its defense, even in a case such as this one, which dealt with whether the courts could issue a preliminary injunction.

Nevertheless, the court said, Google met that test. The justices ruled that a larger public interest in searching for information -- or, in this case, images of partially clad women -- amounted to a “transformative use” that trumped Perfect 10’s copyright claims.

The small legal tweak did not change the appeals court’s original May decision.

The court overturned part of a ruling by the U.S. District Court in Los Angeles, which had found that Google’s thumbnail-sized images of Perfect 10’s nude models constituted infringement. The lower court imposed an injunction barring the use of the images, but the appeals court invalidated that decision.

It also asked the district court to reconsider the question of whether Google or Amazon .com Inc., which also was named in the suit, could be held liable for damages because they linked to websites that displayed Perfect 10’s copyrighted images without permission. The 9th Circuit judges wrote that the lower court erred and needed to consider whether the search engines knew of the infringement but failed to take simple steps to stop it.