US: Writers sue universities over digital books plan

A controversial plan involving a host of prominent American universities to digitise thousands of copyrighted books, suffered a setback last month as a number of organisations that represent authors sought to halt digitisation efforts and an 'orphan works' initiative.

In a suit filed on 12 September the Authors Guild, a writers' advocacy group, and several individual authors accused the universities - including Wisconsin, Michigan and the University of California system - of pooling unauthorised scans of an estimated seven million books in an online repository called the Hathitrust, also a defendant in the case.

"These books, because of the universities' and Google's unlawful actions, are now at needless, intolerable digital risk," said Scott Turow, president of the Authors Guild, in a statement.

There are actually two issues at play in the lawsuit.

The first involves the security of the Hathitrust's digital archives. The authors argue that the digital scans are no longer under the control of the universities, which they say could lead to the release of copyrighted material. The authors also argue that according to copyright law, libraries are not allowed to make available the off-campus works they have digitised.

The second issue involves the Hathitrust's plans to publish the full text of a number of orphan works - material where the copyright owner cannot be identified or located.

June Besek, a specialist in copyright law at Columbia University, said the suit raised legitimate concerns about the scope of what should and should not be allowed in a time of galloping technological advances.

"I think this is a really interesting and not properly resolved area of the law," said Besek, executive director of Columbia's Kernochan Center for Law, Media and the Arts. "The law does not specifically provide for uses like this."

Besek said the main issue in the suit was the orphan works project.

The Hathitrust is attempting to locate the copyright owners of books it deems 'orphaned' by first doing a search and then putting the names of authors it cannot track down on its website. If, after 90 days, the author does not step forward, the group will go ahead and make the full text of those books available to its users.

The Guild is asking that the orphan works initiative and any further digital scanning be put on hold pending a decision by the US congress.

Besek said the Guild had a point. "I think they're right in that this is something that should be decided on the national level by a federal law," she said. "It is very problematic to have individuals making these decisions and taking the attitude: 'I'm going to do it and if you don't like it then you can come and get me'."

The University of Michigan, which co-administers the Hathitrust, has responded to the suit. Last month, it issued a statement saying it would suspend the orphan works project while it re-examined its methods.

"The close and welcome scrutiny of the list of potential orphan works has revealed a number of errors, some of them serious. This tells us that our pilot process is flawed," said the university.