After seven years and the digitization of millions of volumes as part of the Google Books Library Project, the University may soon be able to boast an even larger number with the help of the newly announced orphan works project.

John Wilkin, associate University librarian, said the orphan works project is an initiative to identify books that may have unknowingly crossed into the public domain after copyright holders have deceased. The project will play an integral role in helping to augment the HathiTrust Digital Library — a collaborative venture between the University and 52 other libraries around the world to digitize works and make them accessible to the public.

Wilkin, who is also the executive director of HathiTrust, said that while the Google Books Library Project has been successful thus far in allowing for the digitization of a multitude of works from each of the campus libraries, it ultimately has been hindered by copyright law that may render a particular work unusable until it receives approval from the rights holder. Engaging in the orphan works project allows for an increased amount of resources to be available to University members as well as the general public, he said.

“I think there’s a lot of hope that when we digitize the library’s collection that it transforms things, and it does, but so much is constrained by copyright,” Wilkin said. “So we’ve been able to open up far more than we ever have before.”

According to Paul Courant, the University’s dean of libraries, the process of finding copyright holders is “laborious” since it entails extensive and thorough research. Additionally, he said it requires consulting with various book retailers to ensure that the work is not on sale somewhere, and thus making it no longer eligible to be considered an orphan.

He added that despite the difficultly, allowing these works to be accessible to the campus community is important in establishing an environment that fosters the sharing and utilization of scholarly information and resources.

“We’ve always wanted to make use of these works … we decided it was very natural since all of our students and faculty already are completely eligible to read these books,” Courant said. “We’re just making it easier to read them in a somewhat different way.

Similarly, University spokeswoman Kelly Cunningham said the orphan works project is a crucial part of the HathiTrust’s mission to provide access to literature and scholarly work to the greater campus community.

“This is part of the library’s mission to preserve knowledge and to share knowledge, especially with their own community, and this kind of just fits right along with what their goals and aspirations are for the University library,” Cunningham said.

Wilkin echoed Courant’s sentiment that the process will be challenging, and said that attempting to prove the absence of a copyright owner can be difficult, particularly in making the final decision to include the work in the database.

“It’s really about trying to prove a negative and those sorts of processes are very hard,” he said. “You’re trying to prove that there is no rights holder out there, but the process of making that determination is extraordinarily difficult and we’ve got a nice crew of people with legal backgrounds working on this.”

Additionally, Wilkin said a website will be developed in about three weeks that will list items the University has determined as orphans so that the public can peruse the collection and uncover if they hold rights to any of the works. Alleged orphans will subsequently have 90 days before they can be declared as part of the project.

If a work is published after the 90 days and a copyright holder claims rights to the work, Wilkin said HathiTrust will immediately deactivate access to the particular work and hold a discussion with the rights owner to determine future action. However, Wilkin said for the most part living copyright holders are enthusiastic about being included in the database and that the University often has authors contacting them from around the world to be included in the project.

“Typically when we contact a rights holder about a work, the rights holder says ‘Oh please open access of that work to everybody in the world,’” he said.

He added that the orphan works project at the University is one of the first of its kind, and while similar efforts have been made at other institutions, it is the forefront of a new program that will likely attract notice from others around the nation.

“It would be wrong to say orphan works digitization hasn’t happened, but it hasn’t happened for the published record in this way, and not on any sort of scale,” he said. “We are singular in this regard. We will be doing something that the world will be watching and I mean that quite seriously. Other research libraries are going to be paying close attention to this and it will begin to shift their activity as they come along.”

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