Authors' Guild sues universities over book digitization project

The suit suggests that the security of this book archive may allow the mass release of copyrighted work.

Story highlights

  • University libraries partnered with Google to get their book digitization efforts off the ground
  • Authors object to unauthorized scan and storage of works in a single archive
  • "These aren't orphaned books, they're abducted books," executive director says
With the planned settlement between Google and book publishers still on indefinite hold, a legal battle by proxy has started. Google partnered with many libraries at US universities in order to gain access to the works it wants to digitize. Now, several groups that represent book authors have filed suit against those universities, attempting to block both digital lending and an orphaned works project.
The suit is being brought by the Authors' Guild, its equivalents in Australia, Quebec, and the UK, and a large group of individual authors. Its target: some major US universities, including Michigan, the University of California system, and Cornell.
These libraries partnered with Google to get their book digitization efforts off the ground and, in return, Google has provided them with digital copies of the works. These and many other universities have also become involved with the HathiTrust, an organization set up to help them archive and distribute digital works; the HathiTrust is also named as a defendant.
The suit seeks to block two separate efforts. In the first, the universities have created a pooled digital archive of the contents of their libraries, maintained by the Hathitrust. No one contests that these works remain in copyright, or that the universities have rights to the nondigital forms of these works.
What the authors object to is the fact that the digital works are derived from an unauthorized scan, and will be stored in a single archive that is no longer under the control of the university from which the scan was derived. The suit suggests that the security of this archive is also suspect, and may allow the mass release of copyrighted work.
A separate issue in the suit is an orphaned works project started by the Hathitrust that focuses on some of the works within this archive. The group is attempting to identify out-of-copyright books, and those where the ownership of copyright cannot be established. If attempts to locate and contact any copyright holders fail, and the work is no longer commercially available, the Hathitrust will start providing digital copies to students without restrictions. This has not gone over well.
The executive director of the Australian Society of Authors, Angelo Loukakis, stated, "This group of American universities has no authority to decide whether, when or how authors forfeit their copyright protection. These aren't orphaned books, they're abducted books."
The authors' coalition would like to see everything grind to a halt -- Google and the libraries kept from any further scanning, the HathiTrust's orphaned works project shuttered, and the digital copies on its servers impounded. The digital works wouldn't be deleted, but it wants to see "any computer system storing the digital copies powered down and disconnected from any network, pending an appropriate act of Congress." (Note that they want them shut down and unplugged, just to be sure.)
The Authors Guild was actually a party to the Google book settlement, so it's not like it objects to the effort per se.
However, the university libraries had not been a party to it, so this may be the Guild's attempt to tie up loose ends when it comes to nailing down digital rights.
Alternately, they may simply be sending a message that, until the settlement is approved, none of Google's efforts should be reaching even a limited segment of the public. In either case, this suit could go a long way towards establishing how many digital rights are granted with the ownership of a book.