Last week, a whole bunch of prestigious schools — namely, Hopkins, Cornell, Duke, and Emory — announced that they’ll join together to make millions of so-called “orphan books” from their collections available online for students, faculty, and researchers at their own institutions. These orphan books are at the heart of Google’s $125 million class action settlement this spring — but what these schools are doing is a lot more noble, and a lot less controversial.
Books published before 1923 are in the public domain because their copyright has expired, and books that are currently in-print have publishers, agents, and authors making sure royalties are fairly distributed. But in between these two groups are millions of books (and other works of art or scholarship) published after 1923 but out-of-print, where no one knows who owns the copyright. Perhaps the publisher has folded, the author and his/her descendants have died — but now no one’s around to give permission to use the work in question. Orphan works drive archivists, writers, and biographers crazy, because they’re there, but (according to copyright law) need permission to be used — and no one has the ability to give that permission.
Google stirred up controversy by going ahead and scanning millions of orphan books, and making them available for search online. The good-Google argument is that they’re taking obscure-but-useful books out of limbo; the evil-Google argument is that they’re sneakily monopolizing the rights to (and profits from) texts that they don’t have the copyright for.
But what Hopkins is doing is far less controversial. By making them available to the limited university community (and by not profiting from ad sales), the universities will make hard-to-find materials available for the people who need them. As many as 4 million volumes of material, in fact. Get ready to start reading!