US universities sued over book digitization project

Posted by Emma Woollacott

With a judge about to hold a status conference on the legal challenge to Google's library scanning project, the Authors' Guild is suing five US universities over the way in which they've taken part.

Along with the Australian Society of Authors, the Union Des Écrivaines et des Écrivains Québécois (UNEQ), and eight individual authors, it's filed a copyright infringement lawsuit in federal court against HathiTrust, the University of Michigan, the University of California, the University of Wisconsin, Indiana University, and Cornell University.

The universities partnered with Google to digitize as many as seven million copyright-protected books, says the Authors Guild, pooling them in a repository organized by the University of Michigan called HathiTrust.

In June, Michigan announced that it was to allow unlimited downloads by its students and faculty members of so-called 'orphan works' - those for which no copyright holder can be found. Other universities have joined the project since.

But the authors claim that many of the works aren’t orphaned books, but are instead 'abducted' books.

"I was stunned when I learned of this," says Danièle Simpson, president of UNEQ. "How are authors from Quebec, Italy or Japan to know that their works have been determined to be ‘orphans’ by a group in Ann Arbor, Michigan? If these colleges can make up their own rules, then won’t every college and university, in every country, want to do the same?"

The complaint also questions the security of the digital files, with Authors Guild president Scott Turow describing the project as a "needless, intolerable digital risk."

In March, a new York federal judge threw out a settlement that Google had reached with authors' groups - including the Authors' Guild. There'll be a new hearing in the case on Thursday.

The new lawsuit implies that the Authors' Guild may simply be concerned that it lacks any specific agreement with the universities.

The full complaint is here.