Author's Guild versus university libraries: a dead letter

You may have heard that the Author's Guild is suing the HathiTrust, a coalition of libraries that is proposing to share their scans of some out-of-print books whose authors can't be located, passing them around among themselves. Corynne McSherry from the Electronic Frontier Foundation reviews the AG's lawsuit, and concludes that they don't have a snowball's chance. I'm in Ann Arbor, MI today, where the local university has been named in the suit -- I had a couple conversations with Hathi-ers today, and they all seem pretty sanguine about the Guild's suit.

Instead, the Guild makes much of imminent plans to make a small set of orphan works (i.e., in-copyright works where the rightsholder cannot be found) available to the university community – but here’s where the Guild’s standing problem arises. None of the owners of those works are part of the lawsuit. The Guild cannot sue on behalf of people who aren’t members, and who aren’t even known. Since it filed the lawsuit, the Guild has managed to identify a few potential rightsholders that the libraries had categorized as orphans, but they are still not parties to the lawsuit (and the libraries are pulling them from the list, as was always promised if a potential rightsholder came forward). To top it off, most of the defendants are state institutions, and therefore cannot be held liable for money damages for copyright infringement. See here and here for more detailed analyses.

The lawsuit gamely claims the libraries are causing “great and irreparable injury” to the authors the Guild claims to represent, as well as several additional individual authors, but it is hard to imagine what that harm might be. Presumably, most authors would like to have their works preserved, which is what the original scans are for, and can hardly object to the public having access to bibliographic information about them. The Guild claims there is an “intolerable” risk that the repository will be hacked – but offers no reason to imagine this will happen, or that the digital repository is less secure than the places where physical books (and digital works on microfiche, etc.) are stored. The Guild also complains that the problem of orphan works should be solved by Congress. That would be great, but it doesn’t seem to be happening anytime soon and denying academic communities (and indeed all communities) access to these works while Congress fiddles seems deeply wrong.

No Authors Have Been Harmed in the Making of This Library

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