Authors take aim at Google Books with a lawsuit against five US universities

An international group of writers are suing five American universities for copyright infringement – and sending a warning to Google Books.

Mandi Wright/Detroit Free Press/AP
"These aren't orphaned books, they're abducted books," says one of the plantiffs in a lawsuit attempting to stop five American universities – including the University of Michigan – from accessing millions of out-of-print and "orphan" digital books scanned by Google.

One party is calling it “one of the largest copyright infringements in history.” The other says its “a lawful activity and important work for scholarship.”

A group of authors and writers’ groups around the world are suing five American universities for copyright infringement for creating online libraries comprised of millions of books scanned by Google.

Observers are calling the fight a proxy battle in the long-running court battle between Google and publishers, the outcome of which could foretell Google’s fate in the matter.

The Authors Guild, the Australian Society of Authors, the Union Des Ecrivaines et des Ecraivains Quebecois, and eight individual authors – British novelist Fay Weldon, Pulitzer-winning American biographer T.J. Stiles, children’s author Pat Cummings, poet Andre Roy, Shakespeare scholar James Shapiro, and novelists Angelo Loukakis, Roxana Robinson, and Daniele Simpson – have filed suit against the universities of California, Michigan, Wisconsin, Indiana, and Cornell.

The schools partnered with Google to digitize millions of books, including out-of-print and orphan works, books whose writers could not be located. Among the seven million scans schools obtained from Google were works by Simone de Beauvoir, Italo Calvino, Gunter Grass, Herta Muller, and Haruki Murakami. The digitization project was designed to allow students and university staff access to scholarly and other works, the schools claim.

The lawsuit centers on one such project at the University of Michigan, the HathiTrust repository. The suing authors say the scans the schools received from Google were copyright-protected and the scans themselves were unauthorized. And the lawsuit calls the digitization, copying, archiving, and publishing of the works “one of the largest copyright infringements in history.” According to the suit, the schools’ "not only violate the exclusive rights of copyright holders to authorize the reproduction and distribution of their works but, by creating at least two databases connected to the internet that store millions of digital copies of copyrighted books, the universities risk the widespread, unauthorized and irreparable dissemination of those works.”

The suing authors are also trying to stop a project by the schools to make so-called orphan works available to students and faculty at the named universities. The first set of orphaned works, which includes 27 works by French, Russian, and American writers, is set to be released October 13, with 140 more to follow in November.

"These aren't orphaned books, they're abducted books," Angelo Loukakis, author and executive director of the Australian Society of Authors, told the Associated Press. "This is an upsetting and outrageous attempt to dismiss authors' rights … This group of American universities has no authority to decide whether, when or how authors forfeit their copyright protection."

"I was stunned when I learned of this," added novelist Danièle Simpson, president of the Quebec writers' body. "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?”

Paul Courant, the dean of libraries at Michigan University, told the AP that he was surprised by the lawsuit.

"I'm confident that everything we're doing and everything we're contemplating doing is lawful use of these works," he said, adding that Google had so far digitized about five million books from Michigan's library, with several million more to scan.

John Wilkin, executive director of the HathiTrust Project, told The New York Times that the project was "a lawful activity and important work for scholarship.”

"This is a preservation operation, first and foremost," he said. "Books are decaying on the shelves. It's our intention to make them available to people at institutions for scholarly purposes. We are ensuring that the cultural record is preserved.”

The lawsuit is designed to send a warning to Google, whose plans to create the world’s largest digital library by digitizing millions of books have resulted in a contentious, six-year-long court battle. In March, Judge Denny Chin rejected a $125 million settlement Google reached with authors and publishers, saying it wasn’t “fair, adequate, and reasonable,” and gave Google an unfair advantage. A new hearing on that case is scheduled for later this week on September 15.

Husna Haq is a Monitor correspondent.

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