HathiTrust Acknowledges Flaws in Handling ‘Orphan Works’

Faced with criticism over how it identifies “orphan works,” the HathiTrust digital repository acknowledged that its procedure is “flawed” and said it was working to fix the problems before it makes those works more widely available. A work is considered an orphan if it’s subject to copyright but its owner can’t be identified or found.

HathiTrust planned to release the first batch of books in its Orphan Works Project next month. Access would still be limited to users of the repository’s partner libraries, and rights holders would still be free to claim ownership.

John Wilkin, the trust’s executive director, said the project will proceed once his group has ironed out the identification procedure. Mr. Wilkin also said that the decision was not a response to a lawsuit filed on Monday by the Authors Guild.

The guild, together with two foreign writers groups and eight individual authors, is suing HathiTrust and five universities over the fate of millions of scanned works in the repository. The plaintiffs said that they were worried about the security of the files, and that HathiTrust and its partners had engaged in unauthorized scanning and distribution of that material.

This week, the authors’ group also announced on its blog that it had found the rights holders of several books included on HathiTrust’s initial list of orphan-works candidates.

Describing the guild as sounding “gleeful” in its posts, James Grimmelman, an associate professor at New York Law School, said on his own blog that the guild’s experiment had cast serious doubt on HathiTrust’s procedures. The results demonstrate “that HathiTrust’s orphan-tagging workflow cannot be relied on to identify genuinely orphan works with sufficient confidence to be usable,” he wrote in a post called “HathiTrust Single-Handedly Sinks Orphan Works Reform.”

HathiTrust said it took the criticisms seriously and would proceed with the Orphan Works Project once it had addressed them. “The close and welcome scrutiny of the list of potential orphan works has revealed a number of errors, some of them serious,” it said in its statement. “Once we create a more robust, transparent, and fully documented process, we will proceed with the work, because we remain as certain as ever that our proposed uses of orphan works are lawful and important to the future of scholarship and the libraries that support it.”


Return to Top