HathiTrust Case Highlights Authors' Fears About Fate of Their Work Online

October 02, 2011

Publishers and librarians tend to think in terms of multitudes right now. They talk about mass digitization and preservation on a grand scale. They focus on how to link content in repositories that hold millions of texts. They experiment with how to crowdsource peer reviews and archival work. They also want to figure out how to break down ever-bigger masses of content into chunks that can be delivered wherever and however readers want them.

Where are individual authors in all this? Some feel lost. I got a plaintive note the other day from a scholar who wondered if authors are little more than cogs in the vast content machine. They do the work that fills digital collections and then watch while it's served up in snippets to suit researchers' grazing habits.

For some authors, this feels like the writers' equivalent of factory farming. Some publishers and librarians may not understand that anxiety, but they have to reckon with it.

The Authors Guild made that clear last month when it brought suit, along with two foreign authors' groups and a cadre of individual authors, against the HathiTrust digital repository and five universities, including HathiTrust's host institution, the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor.

Suing libraries and universities is not a move calculated to win public affection. Reaction to the authors' legal action was swift and scathing. Kara Novak of Public Knowledge castigated the plaintiffs in a blog post that caught the mood of much of the public response.

"Instead of fighting for copyright protection where none exists, the Authors Guild should work with the technology that quickly disseminates authors' works and create new business models that will bring in money earned from digital book sales," she wrote. "It is time for the Authors Guild to focus less on litigation to impound its works under top security and turn its attention to creating the artistic work it claims to protect."

Whatever one thinks about the lawsuit, it's time to think harder about the anxiety that prompted it. In its filing, the Authors Guild expressed deep concern about what would happen if the millions of scanned texts in the HathiTrust repository—files created largely with the help of Google's book-scanning project—got loose on the Internet. Such a breach could cut into the value of copyrighted material, the author plaintiffs argued.

It goes beyond money, though. In a conversation with me, Paul Aiken, executive director of the Authors Guild, made the basic but important point that authors want to have a say in what happens to what they create. "It's their hard work," he said. "It's not just for one group with their own interests to decide the fate of these works."

Now HathiTrust is not an amateur operation. Long-term, big-scale preservation of digitized material is central to its mission. It's not trying to publish or sell any of that material, nor is it posting files online for the world to do with as it likes. I can imagine far less safe places to store intellectual content.

But if you're an author who discovers that Google or some other entity (even a nonprofit, preservation-minded, university-based one) has taken your book and made digital copies of it without asking you, you might be a little concerned. You might wish somebody had asked you first. You might like some guarantees that digital versions of your book will not turn up in a torrent available for download on the Pirate Bay site, liberated by reformers who think the current intellectual-property system is too restrictive. You might ask whether an Aaron Swartz-style hacktivist will take control of your work away from you in the name of open access. "Anyone who follows the news knows how real the risk is," Mr. Aiken said.

Copyright reformers and preservation-focused librarians tend to scoff at such worries. And plenty of authors, especially in the academic world, don't expect to make a lot of money off their work. They welcome the idea that it's being digitized and preserved as part of a large-scale effort. But there's enough fear out there to prompt expensive and unpopular legal action—and that should be enough to get publishers and libraries thinking about how to reassure authors worried about what happens to their work in this sprawling, murky digital environment.

Libraries, charged with handling enormous amounts of material, may be tempted to assume that being on the side of preservation and access is reassurance enough. The Authors Guild's HathiTrust lawsuit is another reminder that it will take more than good intentions to convince content creators that the benefits outweigh the risks.