The Authors Guild is crowing after universities decided to suspend the release of over 100 orphan works — in-copyright books whose owners can’t be found. The news may a PR coup for the Authors Guild but it doesn’t help reach a solution with the millions of other orphan works that sit on office book shelves and in library stacks around the world, and also does little to benefit writers or readers.
Librarians at a number of universities and colleges, chafing that most of their books were crumbling unseen by anyone, decided to make available a handful of orphan works this October after carefully conducting a search for the owners of the copyrights for those books. The University of Michigan is leading that effort, and the works are being drawn from an enormous digital collection known as the Hathi Trust, which contains millions of works scanned by Google.
Authors’ groups from around the world then responded with a lawsuit demanding permission to seize the Hathi Trust. A few days later, the Authors Guild announced that J.R. Salamanca, the author of one of the alleged orphan works, was not only living but was also surprised and annoyed to discover the universities planned to share his book.
That revelation has apparently now caused the University of Michigan to flinch. “The close and welcome scrutiny of the list of potential orphan works has revealed a number of errors, some of them serious. This tells us that our pilot process is flawed,” said a statement by the University of Michigan.
Critics have used the episode to paint the librarians as arrogant and careless and have repeated demands for the orphan works plan to be shelved altogether. The librarians, who have been outflanked in the media by their opponents, said they are learning from the mistake and added that not a single copyright owner has been harmed.
The smartest — though hardly the loudest — voice to emerge so far in the debate is Kevin Smith, a librarian at Duke. In an open letter, Smith notes that Salamanca’s “The Lost Country” (the book at the center of the kerfuffle) “has become a pretty obscure work” and has not been checked out of Duke’s library for at least eight years. His point is that there are millions of other books that are being similarly forgotten and that the universities’ orphan works project is their best opportunity to be discovered by a larger audience. The project, while not perfect, has so far worked in that is allowing once-lost works to be remembered without the violation of anyone’s copyright. The alternative for authors — having their work locked down forever unseen — seems a worse fate than temporarily appearing by mistake on an orphans’ list.