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Writers guild suing U.S. universities: 'Give up your Google books'

Orphaned books or 'abducted' books? Five U.S. universities are being sued to prevent work from being uploaded and digitized.
Written by Zack Whittaker, Contributor on

A legal battle is under way between a coalition of writers and five major U.S. universities, after the writers' books were digitized without their say so.

The Authors' Guild and its equivalent organisations in Australia, Canada and the UK, along with a large group of other authors, are suing the five universities, including the University of Michigan, Wisconsin, Indiana, Cornell and the University of California.

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(Source: Flickr)

The five universities allied with Google to digitize their books, in a bid to make the same copies of books available to more students without physically buying more books. Google partnered with these U.S. university libraries also to gain access to the books and works that it wants to digitize for its Google Books project.

But the authors of the books are not happy, and the lawsuit threatens Google's long-term project of digitizing books for general availability.

HathiTrust, a named defendant in the case and a central core to the ongoing lawsuit, helped the universities set up a digital archive of their books. The repository was set up by the University of Michigan for student and staff access of 'orphan works' -- defined as out-of-print books whose writers could not be found to ask or negotiate copyright.

But HathiTrust is in the cross-hairs as the suit suggests that books uploaded may be breaching copyright, given that they are outside the control of the universities that own the physical, hard copies of the work.

The company is attempting to find out-of-copyright books, so called 'orphaned' works. If it cannot find the authors, then it will go ahead and digitize the work regardless, and provide digital copies to students and staff. As you would expect, this has not gone down well -- and the group pursuing the lawsuit claims that the books are not orphaned, more so "abducted".

Google has so far digitized nearly five million books from Michigan's library, but authors believe that the project is going ahead without their consent.

The coalition of authors wants the whole project to halt. Simply put, any computer with a digital copy of the books to be shut down and disconnected.

If the authors win the suit, Google Books could be over as we know it. But whether or not Google's digital book service is a good thing or not, from the point of the students at least, that is a debate for another time.

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