Court rules in favor of searchable database of scanned books

It’s every college student’s dream: to be able to use the ‘find function’ so often utilized on computers to pull out bits of text from an actual printed book. While that isn’t exactly what the HathiTrust Digital Library has done, it’s pretty darn close. Basically, since 2008, the project has involved scanning over 10 million books and assorted works into an online database. These books come from a number of library organizations and universities, 80 in fact, and are voluntarily given to the project’s team temporarily for scanning.

Students and other users of the database can then go online and actually search for text within these books. They can find out exactly which page number(s) a certain phrase or theme appears on, and use that information to quickly locate within the actual text the information that they need for a project or for personal research.

While some touted the technology as remarkably helpful, others weren’t so happy about it. Among dissenters were authors and other parties that held copyrights for the materials that were being scanned and used in the digital library. Ultimately, these groups took the digital library to court and asked that the copyrighted works be removed.

Unanimously, a three-judge circuit court panel voted to leave the digital commons intact and stated that the way in which the texts were being utilized fell under the fair use clause of copyright law. A large part of the decision, they wrote in their opinion, was that the full text of the books, or even the page that the digital search would spit out, was not actually available for reading by the students. The service simply tells users where in the physical copy of the book they can find the things they need. Because of this, students and researchers will still have to obtain a licensed copy of the book either from a library or by purchasing it on their own in order to access the information inside of it. All of this, the judges agreed, meant that the authors, publishers, and copyright holders of the works in question were not being financially harmed in any way by their works’ inclusion in the service.

This court case mimics closely a similar lawsuit against Google books, a service of the large Internet conglomerate which also scanned books into online text format. That case was also dismissed, though it has been appealed and will likely resume litigation and/or negotiations this year.

Advocates of the service and the technology also point to the fact that it could be expanded to help students and researchers with disabilities have easier access to text. The service could be operated by voice or other inputs, and wouldn’t require extensive traveling back and forth between physical locations, or recovering and manipulating physical books and pages. If the service is expanded in this way, however, then the full text may be requested and the issue of copyright and compensation may have to be revisited. It is currently unclear how rulings and negotiations may or may not affect these expansion efforts in the future.