Business News · Legal News

Lawsuit Seeks the Removal of a Digital Book Collection

Three major authors’ groups and eight individual authors filed suit against a partnership of research libraries and five universities on Monday, arguing that their initiative to digitize millions of books constitutes copyright infringement.

The lawsuit, filed in United States District Court for the Southern District of New York, contends that,

“by digitizing, archiving, copying and now publishing the copyrighted works without the authorization of those works’ rights holders, the universities are engaging in one of the largest copyright infringements in history.”

The plaintiffs in the lawsuit are the Authors Guild, the Australian Society of Authors and the Québec Union of Writers. Individual authors include Pat Cummings, Roxana Robinson and T. J. Stiles.

“We’ve been greatly concerned about the seven million copyright-protected books that HathiTrust has on its servers for a while,” said Paul Aiken, executive director of Authors Guild, an industry group that says it represents more than 8,500 authors. “Those scans are unauthorized by the authors.” HathiTrust is the name of the partnership of libraries.

The announcement leaves the Authors Guild fighting a two-front war against what it contends is copyright infringement. It filed a lawsuit in 2005 against Google, contending that the company’s project of scanning and archiving digital books violated copyrights.

In March, a federal judge in New York rejected a settlement that Google had worked out with authors’ and publishers’ groups. A new hearing on that case will be held on Thursday.

In addition to copyright infringement, the suit also cites concerns about the security of the files in the HathiTrust repository, which is organized and maintained by the University of Michigan. Scott Turow, the president of the Authors Guild, said the books on file were at “needless, intolerable digital risk.”

The plaintiffs are not seeking damages in the lawsuit; instead, they are asking that the books be taken off the HathiTrust servers and held by a trustee.

HathiTrust, founded in 2008, is a collaboration of research libraries that share the goal of building a digital archive. The partnership has so far digitized more than 9.5 million total volumes, including books and journals. About 27 percent of those works are believed to be in the public domain, the group said.

John P. Wilkin, the executive director of HathiTrust, said in an interview Monday that nearly all the digitized works were provided by Google and that the project was “a lawful activity and important work for scholarship.”

“This is a preservation operation, first and foremost,” Mr. Wilkin said. “Books are decaying on the shelves. It’s our intention to make them available to people at institutions for scholarly purposes. We are ensuring that the cultural record is preserved.”

The lawsuit also objects to HathiTrust’s method of determining which books are so-called orphan works, whose rights holders are unknown or cannot be found. About 150 books in the HathiTrust digital library have so far been identified as possible orphan works, Mr. Wilkin said, and many more are expected to be identified.

A list of the possible orphan works has been posted online, and after 90 days, if they have not been claimed, HathiTrust will consider them orphans, Mr. Wilkin said.

The first group of orphan works are expected to be made available to users of HathiTrust’s repository on Oct. 13.

James Grimmelmann, an associate professor of law at New York Law School who has closely followed the Google lawsuit, said that a settlement in that case would have provided a framework to decide which use of the libraries’ books was permitted.

“They chose now to go after the libraries in part because of the posting of books online,” he said. “And in part because the Google books settlement has fallen apart.”


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