Libraries Rethink Digitization Effort After Authors Sue

September 23, 2011 12:00 am0 comments
Rachel Rabinowitz

The University of Michigan suspended its orphan works digitization project in response to the copyright infringement lawsuit filed against it and four other universities, including Cornell.
The lawsuit, filed Sept. 12, claims that Google and the five universities — Cornell, the University of Michigan, Indiana University, the University of Wisconsin and the University of California — have digitized about seven million books illegally. The majority of the contested texts are known as “orphan works” — books that are still subject to copyright but whose copyright holders are unknown or cannot be located.
While several universities spoke out in response to the lawsuit, Simeon Moss ’73, deputy University spokesperson, said Thursday that Cornell does not comment on matters currently in litigation.
According to Paul Courant, dean of libraries at the University of Michigan, the system for identifying orphan works is now being rebuilt to ensure that no mistakes are repeated. The reexamination of orphan works has already started, but there is no concrete date for when the university will next put up a set of works for use by its communities, he said.
“It is not true that the University of Michigan has terminated the orphan work project. We have delayed making orphan works available as we revise our process in light of what we have learned in the past several weeks — which is that the process had made too many mistakes,” Courant said. “We are revising the process, and going forward it is important that we do it right, rather than do it fast.”
Paul Aiken J.D. ’85, executive director of the Authors Guild, said the suspension is a start to appeasing the authors’ societies and individual authors that filed the suit. It does not, however, reconcile all of the accusations of the lawsuit, he said.
“This is about more than just the orphan works,” Aiken said. “According to the University of Michigan, they have several million scans of copyright protected books in Michigan and Indiana. The lawsuit is about all of those books, which are unauthorized scans of literary property. The lawsuit is about the essence of copyright — the controlled distribution of work.”
Ed Van Gemert, deputy director of libraries at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, said Michigan was the first of the five universities being sued to respond to the lawsuit because it is the leader in the HathiTrust project — a collaborative of universities that aspires to build a digital archive.
“Michigan’s spearheading the process. Michigan developed the process to examine and identify copyright material for possible orphan works, opening up access,” Van Gemert said. “Wisconsin and a number of other institutions — more than the four others listed — lent their support to that activity. They were the only institution that had begun that work at this point. We’ve indicated our support, but we haven’t done it yet.”
Van Gemert said he agrees with Michigan’s choice to edit its orphan works project.
“Even though nobody wishes to start over, it was the right thing to do because we care about rights holders. It’s important to get it right, is the bottom line. It’s unfortunate that mistakes were made in the process,” Van Gemert said. “Even with a new process, no one will be infallible. But it’s a pilot, and we’re an educational institution, and we learn from it and move on.”
Both parties agreed that the goal is to protect the rights of the authors whose work is being digitized.
The Authors Guild presently believes that the only way to do this is through litigation, Aiken said.
“We are not opposed to creating digital libraries and archives, so long as there are appropriate protections against unauthorized use and that authors are compensated for their works,” Aiken said.