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HathiTrust ruling elicits mixed reactions

By Austen Hufford, Daily Staff Reporter
Published October 14, 2012

In light of a recent lawsuit that ruled in favor of the University and other partner schools regarding the legality of the HathiTrust digitization project, interest groups and industry members have spoken out on the groundbreaking ruling.

Though the case has not been covered widely by national media, Federal District Court Judge Harold Baer wrote in his written opinion that the case could set a national precedent on digital utilization of copyrighted materials. Since the ruling was made last Wednesday, interest groups and bloggers have openly reacted to the case, and, as of Sunday, there had been 1,781 tweets containing “hathitrust” since the ruling, according to Topsy.com.

HathiTrust is a shared repository for millions of scanned books that allows books currently in the public domain to be fully viewable and for those that are copyrighted to be text-searchable. The Authors Guild Inc., The Writer’s Union of Canada, the Australian Society of Authors and 12 individual authors alleged that the program was in violation of fair use laws, which allow copyrighted works to be republished for certain uses that benefit the public.

The service also provides full access to all scanned books, including copyrighted materials, for blind individuals, who can use text-to-speech software to consume digitized literature.

James Grimmelmann, a law professor at New York Law School, noted the significance of the ruling in a blog for Publisher’s Weekly, a trade publication. He wrote that it was a substancial win for educational institutions, the disabled and book digitizers.

“The HathiTrust ruling could well become a landmark in copyright,” Grimmelmann wrote. “ ... It landed with a big splash, and its ripples could reach far indeed.”

A written statement released by the Authors Guild stated its disagreement with the entire ruling, but focused on the judge’s indiscretion on the orphaned works program. Paul Aiken, the Authors Guild’s executive director, called the orphaned works project a “haphazard mess” in the statement.

“The court’s decision leaves authors around the world at risk of having their literary works distributed without legal authority or oversight,” Aiken said.

The Orphan Works Project intended to allow complete access to books in the HathiTrust archive with indeterminable copyright information. When the lawsuit was filed the program had not launched, and after a review of the program, the universities involved decided to postpone its debut. It is unclear if, or when, the program will launch in the future. The judge declined to rule on the legality of the orphaned works project because it had not gone into effect.

In contrast, a statement released by HathiTrust — which is managed by the University — did not mention the orphan works project.

“… Now we know that the benefits of this work will be sustained for the generations to come,” Paul Courant, the University’s dean of libraries, said in the statement.

The National Federation of the Blind, which requested to be a defendant in the case, applauded the court’s decision and focused on the benefits it could bring to the blind in a written statement.

“For the first time ever, blind students and scholars will have the opportunity to participate equally in library research,” NFB president Marc Maurer said. “The blind, just like the sighted, will have a world of education and information at their fingertips.

Corynne McSherry, the intellectual property director for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which submitted a statement to the court supporting HathiTrust, said in an interview that the foundation was pleased with the ruling and agreed with the Judge’s sentiments.

“Judge Baer got it right,” McSherry said.

Associate librarian Jeremy York, a project librarian for HathiTrust, said preserving books is one of the core functions of a librarian and that using computers for preservation was just the next logical step.

“We believe what we were doing was the right thing all along, it’s great to have this validation so we don't have to fight this battle to do this core function,” York said. “Clearly it may be appealed, but it's significant that this statement has been made by a federal judge.”


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