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Can’t Find ‘Orphan’ Authors? Writers Group Says It Had No Trouble

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Several universities recently declared, against the wishes of the Author’s Guild, that they will begin sharing digital versions of so-called orphan works — books whose copyright holders can’t be found. Now the Guild has produced a surprise find to undermine the universities. The Guild announced today that it tracked down the author of one of the orphan works that the universities plan to release this fall — and that it did so with a simple Google (NSDQ: GOOG) search. The discovery is a public relations coup for the Authors Guild, and comes just two days after it filed a lawsuit to stop the schools from going forward with their plan.

The discovery was announced in a triumphant blog post on the Authors Guild website. The organization claims a simple Google search allowed it to find J.R. Salamanca, the author of “A Lost Country,” a 1961 fiction work that was also turned into an Elvis Presley movie. The Guild says Mr. Salamanca was surprised and annoyed to discover that his work had been declared an “orphan.”

Orphan works are out-of-print titles that are protected by copyright but whose authors can’t be found. The University of Michigan and other prominent schools recently announced a plan to make digital copies of these works available to students and scholars. The plan is intended to allow readers to have access to millions of titles that might otherwise languish forgotten on library shelves. Many of the orphan works can be found in the “Hathi Trust”, an enormous collection of digital books that were scanned as part of the troubled Google Books initiative.

This week, the debate over what to do with the orphan works turned bitter. Authors’ groups said the plan to share a handful of orphan works was “preposterous” and “potentially catastrophic” and filed a lawsuit asking for court permission to seize university computers.

The Authors Guild’s announcement coincides with a court hearing this week at which a federal judge is expected to declare the Google Books Settlement officially dead in the water. The news also appears designed to embarrass the librarians and portray them as careless:

“…we knew that research librarians were behind the project, and they were likely to be especially careful to avoid any embarrassing slip-ups in this first go-round. We thought, at best, we might find the representative of some obscure literary estate. We were wrong.”

The news means that the authors’ groups have won the first round in shaping public perceptions of the orphan works. The debate so far has for the most part been a rhetorical one in which authors have tried to paint the librarians as legal outlaws who want to give away their books in a Napster-style free-for-all.

The reality is, of course, more complicated. The orphan works issue is not about books by the likes of Scott Turow and Faye Weldon, two of the authors who are taking part in the lawsuit against the universities. The copyrights of these authors are easily identified and well-protected. The issue instead is about what to do with the millions of works sitting largely forgotten on library shelves but covered by absurdly long copyright terms. Congress has twice tried to pass orphan works legislation but has come up short and, in response, the librarians are trying to go forward with a policy of their own.

Today, the Authors Guild won a major victory in the fight to spin the issue. The ball is back to the universities — will they stand their ground or just put the books back on the shelf?

When contacedt by paidContent, Michigan’s Dean of Libraries, Paul Courant, said that he had yet to review the Author’s Guild announcement but added that librarians welcomed an opportunity to remove a title from the orphans list.

“We’re trying to make this process as open and transparent as possible.”

4 Responses to “Can’t Find ‘Orphan’ Authors? Writers Group Says It Had No Trouble”

  1. reneemjones

    Oh … also … I wonder how many of the books on the “orphan” list they had to check before they were able to find one with a corresponding author that could be located.

  2. reneemjones

    Ok. Cool. Since this is so easy, the Guild can set up a website that gives you the contact information for the author of any book you enter.  If they can’t do it, then they should shut up.

  3. True – so if they did not find “Salamanca”, how carefully did the librarians actually search? Since it is in their interest not to find authors, one wonders whether they will not create rather a lot of orphan works. Should a “Peggy Webb” or a “David Nicholls” lose their copyright thanks to a common name?