Sunday, September 25, 2011

The Fight Over the Future of Digital Books (The Atlantic)

The mysterious tower of the Cambridge University library, once rumored by undergraduates to be filled with pornography, is actually stocked with more interesting stuff: Edwardian spy novels set in far away lands, old country cookbooks, and legal thrillers by authors who are long gone, all conscientiously saved for posterity. Today scholars greatly value collections like these and the librarians who had the foresight to create and keep them. Without such troves we would have precious little to study to understand our past, present, and future.

In a plot turn that surprised many last week, the Authors Guild, led by modern-day legal-thriller writer Scott Turow, filed suit against five universities and the digital tower, called HathiTrust, that those universities created to preserve and make available to students and faculty scans of books from their collections.

Most of these scans are the institutional copies of books digitized by Google, which the Authors Guild sued six years ago in a complicated case that has still not been resolved. (The parties met with a judge yet again last Thursday.) This is the first time Google's university partners have been directly targeted by the plaintiffs.

Unlike Google, which ambitiously -- some would say recklessly -- planned to make all scanned books available in some form to the public, from "snippets" to full views, HathiTrust simply wishes to make available for scholarship older, out-of-print books whose authors and publishers cannot be located. Often called "orphan works," these books exist in an unclear realm: still technically in copyright but without identifiable rights-holders. What is very clear is that without the orphanages we call libraries, many of these works would no longer be available for scholars to read.

Authors Guild v. HathiTrust is a strange legal twist. For an association of professional writers, the Guild seems to have forgotten some of the basic principles of its craft, such as not placing sympathetic figures like librarians in the role of villains. Almost comically, the Guild's press release trumpeting its lawsuit against HathiTrust augurs a dark day in the not-too-distant future when old works, including obscure Yiddish texts, are "abducted" and "released" to thousands of students and professors.

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