“Orphan books”—books that are in copyright but whose copyright owners can’t be found—have been in the news lately, thanks to lawsuits over Google’s plan to scan a copy of every book ever published. What started as a project to make a better search engine has gradually become a focal point for debate over whether the legal system can find a way to rescue the orphans from copyright limbo. Some of the libraries working with Google have announced plans to make available to their patrons digital versions of the books they think are orphans; an authors’ group has sued to stop them. In this column, I’ll review the convoluted history of the Google Books lawsuits, with an eye toward what they might mean for orphan books.
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