Monday, September 12, 2011

Authors Guild Sues HathiTrust

There has been a period of limbo since Judge Chin rejected the proposed settlement between the Author's Guild/Association of American publishers and Google. In fact, a supposedly final meeting between the parties is scheduled for this Thursday, 9/15, in the judge's court.

Monday, 9/12, the Author's Guild (and partners) filed suit against HathiTrust (and partners) for some of the same "crimes" of which it had accused Google: essentially making unauthorized copies of in-copyright texts. In addition, the recent announcement that the libraries would allow their users to access items that had been deemed to be orphan works figures in the suit. That this suit has come over 6 years since the original suit against Google is in itself interesting. Nearly all of the actions of HathiTrust and its member libraries fall within what would have been allowed if the agreement that came out of that suit had been approved by the court. Although we do not know the final outcome of that suit (and anxiously await Thursdays meeting to see if it is revelatory), this suit against the libraries is surely a sign that AG/AAP and Google have not come to a reconciliation.

The Suit

First, the suit establishes that the libraries received copies of Google-digitized items from Google, and have sent copies of these items to HathiTrust, which in turn makes some number of copies as part of its archival function. This is followed by a somewhat short exposition of the areas of copyright law that are pertinent, with an emphasis on section 108, which allows libraries to make limited copies to replace deteriorating works. The suit states that the copying being done is not in accord with section 108. Then it refers to the Orphan Works Project that several libraries are partnering in, and the plan on the part of the libraries to make the full text of orphan works available to institutional users.

Since most of these institutions (if not all of them) are state institutions that have protections against paying out large sums in a lawsuit of this nature, the goal is to regain the control of the works by forcing HathiTrust (and the named libraries) to transfer their digital copies of in-copyright works to a "commercial grade" escrow agency with the files held off network "pending an appropriate act of Congress."

As James Grimmelman comments in his blog post on the suit, there's a lot of mixing up between the orphan works and owned works in the suit. He points out that a group of organizations representing authors could hardly make a case for orphan works since, by definition, the lack of ownership of the orphans means they can't be represented by a guild of people defending their own works.

The Problems

There are numerous problems that I see in the text of this suit. (IANAL, just a Librarian.)
  • The suit mentions large numbers of books that have been copied without permission, but makes no attempt to state how many of those books belong to the members of the plaintiff organizations.
  • The suit throws around large numbers without clearly stating that none of the statements include Public Domain works. It isn't clear, therefore, what the numbers represent: the entire holdings of HathiTrust, or just the in-copyright holdings. Also, in relation to the latter, unless one has done a considerable amount of work there are many works that are post-1923 that are also in the Public Domain. Cutting off at that year does not account for works that were not renewed, or were never copyrighted. I also doubt if anyone has a clear idea how many of the works in question are Public Domain because they are US Federal documents. This imprecision on the copyright status of works is very frustrating, but HathiTrust is not to blame for this state of affairs.
  • Some of their claims do not seem to me to be within legal bounds. For example, in one section they claim that although HathiTrust is not giving users access to in-copyright works, they potentially could. Where does that fit in?
  • They also claim that there is a risk of unauthorized access. However, the security at HathiTrust meets the security standards that the Author's Guild agreed to in the (unapproved) settlement with Google. If it was good enough then, why is it now too risky?
  • They claim that the libraries themselves have been digitizing in-copyright books. I wasn't aware of this, and would like to know if this is the case.
  • They state that the libraries said that before Google it was costing them $100 a book for digitization. Then the plaintiffs say that this means that the value of the digital files is in the hundreds of millions of dollars. First, I have heard figures that are more like $30 a book. Second, I don't see how the cost to digitize can translate into a value that is relevant to the complaint.
  • Although the legislature has failed to pass an orphan works law that would allow the use of these materials and still benefit owners if they do come forth, it seems like a poor strategy to complain about a well-designed program of due diligence and notification, which is what the libraries have designed. Orphan works are the least available works: if you have an owner you can ask permission; if there is no owner you cannot ask permission and therefore there is no way to use the work if your use falls outside of fair use. It's hard to argue for taking these works entirely out of the cultural realm simply because we have a poorly managed copyright ownership record.
  • There are a few odd sections where they make reference to bibliographic data as though that were part of the "unauthorized digitization" rather than data that was created by and belongs to the libraries. There's an odd attempt to make bibliographic data searching seem nefarious.
Plaintiffs: The Author's Guild, Inc.; The Australian Society of Authors limited ; Union des Erivaines Quebecois; Pat Cummings; Angelo Loukakis; Roxana Robinson; Andre Roy; James Shapiro; Daniele Simpson; T.J. Stiles; and Fay Weldon. (Links are to some sample HathiTrust records.)

Defendants: HathiTrust; The Regents of the University of California, The Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System; The Trustees of Indiana University; and Cornell University.

Boing Boing: Authors Guild declares war on university effort to rescue orphaned books
Library Journal: Copyright Clash


Harry Lawe said...

Karen, there are no orphan works candidates. The University of Michigan stopped the Project. See The letter was from 2011. We are still waiting.

Karen Coyle said...

Yes, I'm aware that they stopped the project once the Author's Guild posted that some of the items on the H-T "orphans" list had findable owners. AFAIK, there is still hope to come to some resolution. I believe that the Berkeley Law and Technology Institute is working on a study of orphan works with some hope of developing a clear "due diligence" that meets legal requirements. Otherwise, we still end up with a large number of works that are unusable simply because we've lost track of who their owners might be. And that is a situation that doesn't get better with time.