Court: Accessible digital books protected by “fair use”

This is a photograhs of three fingers and a thumb being used to read Braille.
Access to world’s written knowledge

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit ruled June 10 that libraries can provide people with print disabilities accessible copies of books from a digital archive, without seeking permission from the book’s copyright holders.

“This ruling will dramatically improve the lives of blind and print-disabled Americans, allowing us access to the millions of books held by the HathiTrust Digital Library and any similar collections created in the future,” said Dr. Marc Maurer, president of the National Federation of the Blind, in a news release. “The decision is a victory for the blind and print disabled, the significance of which cannot be overstated.”

The case centered in the HathiTrust, a program created by several research universities in 2004 that allows Google to electronically scan the the books in their collections.

As part of the program, students with print disabilities can request accessible versions of the books, such as Braille, audio recording or large e-print books. These requests must be accompanied by documentation verifying their disabilities.

At present, this option is only available at the University of Michigan, though other member institutions are likely to follow.

In 2011, 20 authors and author’s associations sued HathiTrust, arguing that the program’s provisions for print disabilities, as well as several other features, violated federal copyright law.

The HathiTrust countered that these features were protected by the fair use doctrine, which provides limited copyright exceptions, such as for book reviewers and journalists. The National Federation of the Blind intervened in the lawsuit on HathiTrust’s behalf.

The U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York ruled in favor of HathiTrust.

The Second Circuit, in affirming the decision, cited the history of the 1976 Copyright Act, as well as the Americans with Disabilities Act, as evidence that the accessible formats represented a fair use, a view long held by disability advocates.

“The court’s historic action hastens the day when the blind and others with print disabilities will have full access to all of the world’s written knowledge,” Dr. Marc Maurer said in the NFB news release.

HathiTrust now has 80 member institutions and has scanned more than 10 million books.