Thursday Threads: Authors Guild Sues Hathi Trust, Libraries Learn from Blockbuster, Publisher’s View of Self-Publishing

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Legal action against the digitization and limited distribution of orphan works unexpectedly hit the news again this week. This week’s DLTJ Thursday Threads starts with an overview of the lawsuit filed by authors organizations and authors against Hathi Trust over plans to make digital versions of orphan works available to university users. And while we’re wondering of libraries’ role in providing access to digitized works, we should also take note of an article in American Libraries Magazine on what we could learn from Blockbuster’s fall. And lastly, I point to a story of one author’s experience when her own self publishing with Amazon ran afoul of a publisher’s desires.

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Hathi Trust Taken to Court

The Authors Guild, the Australian Society of Authors, the Union Des Écrivaines et des Écrivains Québécois (UNEQ), and eight individual authors have filed a copyright infringement lawsuit in federal court against HathiTrust, the University of Michigan, the University of California, the University of Wisconsin, Indiana University, and Cornell University. … “This is an upsetting and outrageous attempt to dismiss authors’ rights,” said Angelo Loukakis, executive director of the Australian Society of Authors. “Maybe it doesn’t seem like it to some, but writing books is an author’s real-life work and livelihood. This group of American universities has no authority to decide whether, when or how authors forfeit their copyright protection. These aren’t orphaned books, they’re abducted books.”

Just days before what could be the final status hearing before the judge in the Google versus Authors Guild et al. case, the Authors Guild in conjunction with two other authors organizations and eight individual authors filed suit in federal court against Hathi Trust and five of its member universities. And with that suit it would seem that the Authors Guild has begun a full-throated assault on libraries. In a subsequent post on the Authors Guild blog, they announce that they have found the author of one of the orphan candidates identified at the University of Michigan. The tone to me isn’t so much that they are pleased for the author that they accomplished this (they don’t say whether the author was a member of the Guild or not), but that they took great pleasure in rubbing librarians’ noses in it:

Just before we filed our lawsuit, we did some cursory research into some of the names on the list of “orphan works” candidates at the HathiTrust website to see if we could find contact information for a copyright holder. …

We weren’t hopeful, because we knew that research librarians were behind the project, and they were likely to be especially careful to avoid any embarrassing slip-ups in this first go-round. We thought, at best, we might find the representative of some obscure literary estate. We were wrong.

A bit nasty, eh guys? I imagine they are trying to fire up their membership for this fight against arguably one of the great institutions of America — the library. At the very least, you’d think that if they were trying to help their members that they would prominently post the link to the list of orphan work candidates in their postings, but it took a reader deep in the comments to offer a link.

In any case, this is being set up as a fight as dramatic as the original Google vs. Authors/Publishers lawsuit. Here are some things you should read, in ascending order of length and comprehensiveness:

  1. Wards of the Court, Inside Higher Ed
  2. The Orphan Wars, James Grimmelmann’s The Laboratorium
  3. ARL’s Resource Packet on Orphan Works: Legal and Policy Issues for Research Libraries, with extensive commentary by Jonathan Brand of Policy Bandwidth

Avoiding the Path to Obsolescence

Blockbuster was much in the news last fall, though not in the favorable light it once enjoyed. The cultural phenomenon and former stock market darling that once prospered through aggressive marketing, savvy exploitation of technology, and keen insights into customer preferences filed for bankruptcy in September 2010. Though some analysts thought the filing could give the franchise time to reinvent itself, others predicted that the onetime video-rental colossus is steps from the graveyard of retail obsolescence.

There is a lesson or two for libraries in this riches-to-rags story.

- Avoiding the Path to Obsolescence, by Steven Smith and Carmelita Pickett, American Libraries Magazine

This is a great article. Although they don’t say it specifically, the authors point to Clayton Christensen’s theory of disruptive innovation. Specifically, how an organization’s Resources-Processes-Values framework prevents it from reacting to innovations that are disrupting its products/services. Even if you aren’t familiar with Christensen’s work, I highly recommend reading this article.

On Self Publishing and Amazon versus Traditional Publishers

In January, 2010, I signed a contract with one of the Big 6 publishers in New York for my next novel. I understood then that I, like every writer in the business, was being coerced into giving up more than 75% of the profits from electronic sales of that novel, for the life of the novel. But I was debt-ridden and needed upfront money that an advance would provide. The book was scheduled for hardback publication in August, 2012, and paperback publication a year later. Recently that publisher discovered I had self-published two of my story collections as electronic books. To coin the Fanboys, they went ballistic. The editor shouted at me repeatedly on the phone. I was accused of breaching my contract (which I did not) but worse, of ‘blatantly betraying them with Amazon,’ their biggest and most intimidating competitor. I was not trustworthy. I was sleeping with the enemy.

On the heels of last week’s DLTJ Thursday Threads entry on Amazon’s tactics for end-to-end control of book publishing comes this view from the author’s perspective. Publishers are getting squeezed from all ends by new models of getting content in the hands of readers. If we could, do you think we can throw into the air all of the pieces of the author-agent-publisher-printer-library-reader chain and sort them into nice neat lines of responsibility and value-add without all of this name calling and lawsuit-filing?