I was literally doing a little victory dance in my office the other day when twitter lit up with news that HathiTrust has pw0ned the Authors Guild in a recent legal case. The nature of the case was a little arcane, but its worth learning about: basically, several of the largest and most well-libraried universities in the United States got together and had Google digitize their libraries. They then put those digitized collections up on the Internet for the use of the member libraries. If the books were in the public domain, you could download them. If they were still in copyright, you could search the full text of the collection for specific quotes, but that was it. An exception was made for the visually disabled: they could get the full text of the book in a form they could use, since the physical book wasn’t much use to them. The Authors Guild (read: the publishing industry) sued them because given the choice between making money and helping the disabled they chose, you know, making money.
I’ll leave a full analysis to the people who are experts on the case. But what’s so satisfying about the case for me personally is that it establishes an important baseline: publishers can’t sue universities for digitizing content they own. This is “transformative fair use”. The implications are broad because Hathi is, as far as I can tell, angling to push the envelope on these issues. Now that they have a huge body of digital books they can begin to chip away at them, slowly ‘turning on’ more and more books for general use. Right now they have public domain books visible, now they can start looking for ‘orphaned works’ which are out of copyright but nobody has noticed. And they can start looking for copyright holders and say “do you want the world to be able to read the book you labored over? We’ve got it all set up — we just need you to sign on the dotted line so we can flip the switch”. Its an exciting, important, and deeply ethical project. And best of all, it is now clearly, resoundingly legal.
How is this relevant to anthropology specifically? The anthropologist Jason Jackson is one of the key players in the creation of Open Folklore, the project through which folklorists are open-accessing everything they’ve ever done. And their partner? HathiTrust.
Sadly, the American Anthropological Association hasn’t been very involved in this effort. In their attempts to keep their unsustainable business model afloat, they see libraries — and, increasingly, members — as customers and not constituents. Although they have a back catalog of obscure but high-quality monographs and edited volumes, if you want to take a look at them you’ll have to visit their bookstore. I’m not sure how much money they’ll make flogging the Ward Goodenough festschrift (to name just one publication), but apparently its enough to make sure that no one will ever read it.