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Librarians Talk Google Books, Orphan Works, and What’s Next

Philadelphia—Like a lot of other people, academic librarians are wondering what happens now that a federal judge has tossed out the proposed settlement in the lawsuit over Google’s book-scanning project. Some of them got together for an informal roundtable discussion of the ruling at the Association of College and Research Libraries’ conference, which runs here through Saturday.

The discussion was led by Corey Williams, the associate director of the American Library Association’s Washington office. (The ACRL is a division of the ALA.) Ms. Williams tracks legislative issues for the association. She made it clear that her remarks did not represent any official ALA position.

“The world has changed a lot since 2005, when this lawsuit began,” Ms. Williams told the group. “Now it’s 2011, and the marketplace, many have observed, is just moving forward. Where does this leave us in our day-to-day operating of our libraries?”

Librarians are especially keen to figure out what to do about orphan works, which are under copyright but whose rights owners can’t be identified or found. Who gets to make use of those works has been a big issue in the Google case.

“Many of us have those in our collections and would love to make those available,” Ms. Williams said. “Some of us do make them available.”

For instance, James G. Neal, the university librarian at Columbia University, said the institution has digitized and made available tens of thousands of orphan works. The university makes them available, with a disclaimer asking rights holders to get in touch if they object. So far, Mr. Neal said, no one has.

A lot of the discussion turned on the prospects for orphan-works legislation. Ms. Williams recapped the recent history of orphan-works bills and some of the concerns the library community has had with them. She pointed out that, in the last Congress, no orphan-works legislation was introduced. But she also said that, since the Google ruling, there have been some closed-door conversations on the Hill about orphan works. “If that train leaves the station, we want to be on that train,” Ms. Williams said, encouraging people to keep on top of the issue and make their voices heard with their representatives.

Some of those assembled said they thought librarians ought to develop their own set of best practices on fair use and orphan works rather than waiting for Congress to do something. “If we can develop our own standards, that would be a better way to go than legislation,” one audience member said. Another added, “We need to be exploiting fair use more.” But Mr. Neal of Columbia urged caution, saying that overemphasizing best practices could easily devolve into a reliance on vague use guidelines.

Ms. Williams also raised the idea of the Digital Public Library of America championed by Harvard’s Robert Darnton and others.

“There are lots of competing interests here—commercial, not-for-profit,” she said. “So what do you think? Do you think this is all doable?”

Nobody in the room had an answer. Meanwhile, academic libraries continue their book-digitizing work.

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