Authors To Universities: Give Up Your Google Books

In a surprise move, authors’ groups slammed their one-time university partners with a lawsuit demanding that the schools’ surrender digital collections and stop working with Google (NSDQ: GOOG). The lawsuit opens a new phase in the fight over digital libraries and comes the same week that Google’s controversial books settlement is expected to die in court.

The lawsuit is a response to a digital book sharing plan announced last month by a group of prominent schools, including Michigan, Cornell, Duke and the University of California. The plan is intended to solve the problem of how to share “orphan works” — books whose authors can’t be found and that for that reason cannot be distributed because of copyright law. Millions of such works, covering everything from cooking to chemistry, now sit largely forgotten on library shelves.

The universities want to make digital copies of the orphan works available to their students and scholars beginning in October. Librarians say they will make a careful search for the author before they make a book available and that they will “turn off” the digital copy immediately if an author comes forward. They believe that these steps will make the sharing “fair use,” meaning they would not be liable under copyright laws that call for fines of thousands of dollars every time a work is copied.

Authors’ groups are having none of it. Author’s Guild president Scott Turow called the scheme a “preposterous ad-hoc initiative,” and the lawsuit says the plan risks the “potentially catastrophic, widespread dissemination” of millions of books. The suit was filed in New York federal court in the name of writers groups from the U.S., Australia and Quebec, and individual authors like Faye Weldon. The suit asks the court for a series of dramatic remedies, including the permission to seize millions of digital works from the Universities of Michigan and California and to order the schools to cease cooperating with Google. The search giant is working to scan all of the world’s books, a project that some librarians once believed would take more than a thousand years.

Paul Aiken, executive director of the Author’s Guild, defended the proposed measures by saying writers’ were worried about the “security protocols for seven millions books” and that the schools had disregarded the law by embarking on a maverick project with Google. “There’s nothing in the copyright law about orphan works — this is their own hand-drawn definition.”

Several universities contacted by paidContent said they were surprised about the lawsuit. “We had no wind of this,” said Paul Courant, Michigan’s Dean of Libraries. “We were in an amiable discussion that appears to have gone off the rails.” Courant said the orphan works were important for scholarship and that the schools were confident their activities were fair use.

Kenneth Crews, a law professor and librarian at Columbia University, said it is too early to tell how the litigation will unfold but that it is sure to turn on definitions of fair use.

Even if the New York court buys the authors’ argument, few judges are likely to put their stamp on an order allowing the seizure of computer servers from a public university to stop the publication of a handful of orphan works. It’s one thing to bust up a software piracy operation — it’s another to let lawyers and bailiffs storm the University of Michigan’s library.

This situation is a far cry from a year ago when the Authors Guild and the universities were still “partners” in an ambitious plan with publishers and Google to build the world’s biggest online library. That plan — known as the Google Books Settlement — was rejected in March by Judge Denny Chin at the request of a coalition led by Google rivals, Amazon (NSDQ: AMZN) and Microsoft (NSDQ: MSFT). The settlement is the subject of a further court hearing this Thursday at which the parties are widely expected to throw in the towel.