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The HathiTrust ruling and what you should know about it

HathiTrust logoYesterday, ALA issued a statement celebrating the Second Circuit Court of Appeals ruling on HathiTrust v. Authors Guild. People who do not follow copyright or work in academic libraries may be unaware of the importance of this ruling. In the ruling, the court found that libraries (more than 80 institutions including research libraries and the Internet Archive collectively called the HathiTrust) that provide the public with a searchable database of primarily college and research materials is not an infringement of copyright. The court also said that it was not an infringement for libraries to provide people with print disabilities access to entire copies of books included in the database that could be “read” using adaptive technologies under very particular circumstances. (People with print disabilities are people who cannot access text, such as people who are blind or people who are unable to turn the pages of a book because of a physical impairment.)

The ruling is important because it says that libraries can create finding tools to materials without the prior permission of the copyright holder. It also means that libraries who have always embraced equitable access to information can further support the information needs of the print disabled.

There is, of course, more to the story on the HathiTrust court case. The Library Copyright Alliance (LCA), of which ALA and ACRL are members have worked in support of the HathiTrust from the beginning of the legal controversy. For those who want more details, all of the twists and turns of the litigation and amicus briefs filed on behalf of the libraries can be found at the LCA web site. The court ruling is also available online and is fairly readable for non-lawyers.

The bottom line is that courts have said what libraries do–help people find information–is a fair use even in a digital environment when scanning entire books is necessary to create enhanced finding tools.

A couple of additional points are worth noting, because there has been confusion about what the HathiTrust actually is.

  • The HathiTrust libraries have purchased all of the titles scanned to create the database.
  • Full text of the works scanned is never displayed when the database is searched. The database only provides a list of books that include the key words that are searched. It also notes where the print copy is held so students enrolled at HathiTrust institutions can retrieve the work or ask that it be borrowed via interlibrary loan.
  • People with print disabilities must be certified by authorized experts before gaining access to content in order to prove that they have a disability. Currently only the print-disabled students enrolled at the University of Michigan can access the content.
  • Extensive technological and redundant fail safe measures have been taken to ensure that the digitized files are secure.
  • The actual scanning of works is done by mathematical algorithms that identify where words appear in books. The creative and expressive content of the works is not implicated in the scanning. The appearance of words and in what order they appear is not protected by copyright.

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Carrie Russell

As of November 2018, District Dispatch is no longer being updated. It is now being archived for future use. Please visit for the latest news.


  1. […] You can read the ALA news blurb here, including President Barbara Stripling’s glowing statement.  In a nutshell, the US Second Circuit Court of Appeals maintained the original ruling in the case, in which actions taken by HathiTrust institutes (providing public-facing full-text searching of works digitized by member libraries and institutions and allowing access for those with print disabilities) were proven to be protected by fair use.  Kudos to ALA for their support of HathiTrust and their constant championing for fair use.  More facts can be found from the ALA Washington Office blog. […]

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