American Universities sued over “abduction” of “orphaned” books

Posted on Sep 17, 2011

American Universities sued over “abduction” of “orphaned” books

Authors and authors’ groups from Australia, Canada, Britain and the US have filed a copyright infringement suit against the HathiTrust (a consortium of universities) and five US universities – the Universities of Michigan, California and Wisconsin, Cornell University and Indiana University.

According to one of the plaintiffs – The Authors Guild – the universities obtained unauthorized scans of an estimated 7 million copyright-protected books (the rights to which are held by authors in dozens of countries) from internet giant Google. The universities have pooled the unauthorized files in a repository called HathiTrust, organized by the University of Michigan.

 ”unauthorised scans of an estimated 7 million copyright-protected books”

The plaintiffs allege that the universities were planning to allow unlimited downloads by students and faculty members of works it deems “orphans” (copyright-protected works whose authors cannot be found) according to rules the school has established.

“planning to allow unlimited downloads by students”

The Australian Society of Authors (also a plaintiff) says HathiTrust’s actions are “an upsetting and outrageous attempt to dismiss authors’ rights. Maybe it doesn’t seem like it to some, but writing books is an author’s real-life work and livelihood. This group of American universities has no authority to decide whether, when or how authors forfeit their copyright protection. These aren’t orphaned books, they’re abducted books.”

The complaint also questions the security of the 7 million unauthorized digital files. The Authors Guild  feels that because of the universities’ and Google’s unlawful actions, the books are now at “needless, intolerable digital risk”.

What is the moral of the story? Get copyright owners’ permission to digitize their books.

The US fiasco is a persuasive reminder for all South African universities and other learning institutes to safeguard themselves against copyright infringement claims by obtaining the necessary consents.

Stellenbosch University can rest easy – it has secured appropriate blanket licenses with the relevant licensing agencies. Another instance of Stellenbosch University showing the way with intellectual property.