Duke to expand e-books

Copyrighted works available

Staff WriterAugust 29, 2011 

Duke University is about to expand access to free electronic books to include thousands of titles that are not yet available from the world's most ambitious e-book project: the gargantuan online library compiled by Google Books.

This fall Duke will be among the nation's first institutions to offer free online access to books that are still protected by copyright and not in the public domain. Those books, published between 1923 and 1963, will be offered to the public because the owners of the copyrights can't be contacted - either the publishers went out of business or the authors are deceased.

The e-books are stored by HathiTrust, a digital partnership of some 60 universities and research institutions. Google Books digitized many of the copyrighted books in the HathiTrust database, but so far Google hasn't received legal clearance to offer public access to those titles.

Duke announced the project this week with other universities - Cornell, Emory and Johns Hopkins. They were able to do what Google hasn't been able to because their library systems own print editions of the books.

"The reason the four of us are collaborating is we had to make the case to our general counsels and our provosts that this is legal," said Kevin Smith, a Duke librarian and lawyer who handles intellectual property issues. "We collaborated to produce memos, and we made the arguments together."

For legal cover, each participating university will provide online access only to titles that are available in print in its library system. Under this reasoning, the universities already paid for the rights to electronically disseminate the books.

However, it's possible someone might disagree with that legal reasoning. So as a hedge, the universities will post notices about the books they plan to offer for 90 days. If no one claims copyright ownership, the full text will remain online.

"If we're legally wrong - if the publishing firm that bought the rights or the granddaughter of the author comes forward - we will suspend access until the issue is resolved," Smith said.

Once online access is cleared, the online books will be available to students, faculty, staff and visiting scholars. Duke also allows the public to use its library for $50 a year, so the e-book database would also be open to visitors.

To date, 17 campus libraries have signed on to participate in the project, said HathiTrust executive director John Wilkin, who is also IT director for the University of Michigan Library System.

HathiTrust holds more than 9.5 million digitized volumes, and as many as half could be copyrighted without surviving copyright owners. HathiTrust only in recent weeks began researching which titles lack copyright owners and could be offered online by Duke and the other universities.

Scholarly works

The organization's list of potential books numbers 148 but will eventually grow into the thousands, Wilkin said.

Many of the titles are obscure and of scholarly interest only. They include such books as "Confusion," a 1924 novel by James Gould Cozzens; "Lecture On Bees," a 1925 title by E.R. Root; "A Reconstruction of Uto-Aztekan History," a 1937 work by Robert Mowry Zingg; "The Ethical Aftermath of Automation," a 1962 monograph by Francis X. Quinn; and Walter Lippman's 1959 study, "The Communist World and Ours."

Offering copyrighted e-books to the public is legal as long as the database operator pays licensing fees to publishers. Public libraries and university collections today offer copyrighted books for downloading, but negotiate terms.

Google's problem

Google Books has been unable to negotiate terms because it's not clear who represents the defunct publishers and dead writers. In March, a federal judge rejected Google's offer to pay $125 million to publishing and writers' guilds for the right to expand its digital library, saying the deal doesn't represent the interests of long-gone publishers and writers.

The settlement offer stemmed from a 2005 lawsuit by authors and publishers who said Google was infringing on their copyrights by digitizing books.

As a result, Google Books currently offers only several lines of copyrighted books on its online library.

Like Google Books, HathiTrust also offers public access to non-copyrighted books, those published before 1923, at www.hathitrust.org.

john.murawski@newsobserver.com or 919-829-8932

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