Rather Than Fixing The Problem Of Orphaned Works, The Authors Guild Wants To Play 'Gotcha'
from the you're-not-helping dept
With the Authors Guild’s recent move to sue a bunch of university libraries for daring to make certain works digitally available to students as “orphaned works,” the latest move by the guild is to engage in a massive game of “gotcha.” It started by going through the list of books that were proposed as orphaned works — and finding one of the authors, followed by an effort that potentially found a few more.
There’s no doubt that, as James Grimmelman pointed out, this makes the HathiTrust effort look bad. This was their first effort to show how an orphan works program might work, and the fact that their process was shown to be less-than-perfect (especially their “first” showcase effort) is definitely going to set back any orphan works project in the future — because any time such an effort is brought up, people will point to this example.
Of course, others might reasonably argue that the system worked. After all, none of these books had been released digitally yet. The process involved the HathiTrust first trying to track down the authors, then the authors/works being put in a public list, which could be scrutinized by the public to see if any of them could show that the works weren’t orphans. And that’s exactly what happened. Even if you could have hoped that the original investigation was a bit better, it’s hard to argue that the system didn’t work here. It did.
Either way, the University of Michigan did exactly what it had to do from a PR standpoint, and suspended the program until it can refine the process to make it more effective in only releasing truly orphaned works.
However, the bigger issue to me is just how gleeful the Authors Guild seems to be that it’s sticking it to universities and their libraries. The Authors Guild should be supporting the efforts of these libraries to legitimately make otherwise unavailable works available again. The Authors Guild should be partnering with these libraries to make sure the works truly are orphaned. Instead, they’re jumping up and down and gloating over the fact that such works won’t be accessible any more. It’s really quite disgusting.
I think the best response to all of this came from Duke’s Scholarly Communications Officer, Kevin Smith, who wrote an open letter to J.R. Salamanca, who was the first name on the list who was “found” by the Authors Guild, asking him to recognize that the libraries are not his enemy, as the Authors Guild is trying to claim:
I am sure I do not have to tell you that libraries, including those that intend to participate in the Hathi Orphan Works project, are not your enemies. We are in the business of helping authors find readers, which hardly seems like it should be an objectionable activity. So let?s think for a minute about The Lost Country and what might be best for it and for you.
The sad fact is that The Lost Country has become a pretty obscure work. Amazon.com shows only two used copies available for sale. In the Duke Libraries, the last transaction record we have for your novel is in 2004, when our copy was sent to high-density storage. It has not left the facility once since then, and our system shows no circulations in the prior decade, either. One of the famous ?laws? of librarianship is that every book should have its readers, and the current system, I am afraid, is failing to connect your book to new readers.
It has to be said that the Authors Guild is not going to help you in this regard. They are not going to publish a new edition of The Lost Country for you, nor will they pay you any royalties on the out-of-print edition. The Authors Guild simply does not have the ability to create a new market for your book. Even if they were to succeed in a grand strategy to impose a licensing scheme for orphan works in general, there is no reason to believe that you would profit from it. With such an obscure work, potential users who had to pay a fee would probably just skip the planned use.
Where you can find help for this problem is with the HathiTrust. Their goal, and the goal of the libraries that plan to participate in the orphan works project, is to make it easier for readers to find works like your novel, which might otherwise languish on shelves or in large warehouses of books. Digital access to low-use titles through our catalogs will encourage users to discover resources, for study and for entertainment, that they might not have bothered with before.
It seems unlikely that the Authors Guild will understand this. But watching Scott Turow (whose books I was a fan of until all this began) and the other top brass at the Authors Guild act this way, it’s hard not to be flat-out disgusted by the way the group is so gleeful about locking up knowledge.