This week alone, groups ranging from digital rights organizations to law professors to library associations to medical researchers have filed friend-of-the-court briefs in favor of the HathiTrust -- a joint digital storage project of several universities.
Many of those groups say that any project that makes books more accessible -- to researchers, as well as people with disabilities -- offers enormous public benefits.
“The ability to freely and easily identify and locate diverse research materials and existing medical research is essential not only to the integrity of medical historiography but to the medical and public health communities as a whole,” begins a brief by a group of researchers and teachers who specialize in the history of medicine. “An inability to access text-searchable databases whose scope reaches back decades ... would have a crippling effect on the medical community’s capacity to adequately address the many challenges still unsolved in the modern medical world.”
The litigation dates to 2011, when the Authors Guild filed a copyright infringement lawsuit against the HathiTrust -- a joint digital book-storage project of the University of Michigan, University of California, University of Wisconsin, Indiana University and Cornell University. The initiative involves creating digital copies of books, making them searchable, and allowing blind people to access the books via software that converts text to speech or conveys it tactilely.
Last year, U.S. District Court Judge Howard Baer in New York ruled that the HathiTrust's book digitization project is protected by fair-use principles. He said that the digital copies are transformative, noting that they are searchable and “facilitate access for print-disabled persons."
The Authors Guild is appealing that ruling to the Second Circuit Court of Appeals.
The case has drawn the interest of numerous outside groups, many of whom weighed in this week against the Authors Guild.
These groups raise some points that it's hard to argue with. For instance, the Emory Vaccine Center -- which conducts research to develop vaccines against diseases like AIDS, West Nile Virus and malaria -- points out that the HathiTrust enables scientists “to discover much more about each specialized research project in a much shorter search time.”
Specifically, the HathiTrust's search tool “creates opportunities to uncover details that have been hidden within published materials but not searchable from other databases,” according to the vaccine center.
In a separate filing, a coalition of groups representing people who are print-disabled -- either due to a vision impairment or a condition like dyslexia -- notes that the HathiTrust can open up doors to people who can't read print. “Each year, hundreds, if not thousands, of students with print disabilities are denied access to the materials they need to have an equal opportunity to pursue the educations for which they are qualified because those materials are not available in accessible format,” the coalition says.
That coalition adds that only 200,000 digital books are available for borrowing. By contrast, the HathiTrust has digitized 10 million books, “enabling students and scholars with print disabilities to read and perform research in a manner as effective as that of nondisabled scholars,” the groups argue.
Judges often surprise people, but in this case the arguments in favor of the HathiTrust are so powerful that it's hard to imagine the appeals court will even consider shutting down the project.