Out of Fear, Colleges Lock Books and Images Away From Scholars

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A library of 8.7 million digital volumes. A trove of 100,000 ocean-science photos. An archive of 57,000 Mexican-music recordings.

A common problem bedevils those different university collections. Wide online access is curtailed, in part because they contain "orphan works," whose copyright owners can't be found. And the institutions that hold the collections—a consortium of major research libraries and the University of California campuses at San Diego and Los Angeles—must deal with legal uncertainty in deciding how to share the works. A university that goes too far could end up facing a copyright-infringement lawsuit.

Many colleges now have the ability to digitize a wide variety of collections for broad use but frequently back away. And that reluctance harms scholarship, because researchers end up not using valuable documents if they can't afford to fly to a distant archive to see them.

This spring academics, advocacy groups, and government officials are paying new attention to the issue. The fresh look comes after Google's attempt to solve the problem for books ran off the rails in March, when a judge scuttled a proposed settlement that would have allowed the company to open up access to many orphan works through its book-digitization program. Now various groups with a stake in the debate are floating proposals for Congress to achieve what Google hasn't....

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