The Authors Guild and writers from Australia, Britain and Canada filed a copyright infringement suit Monday against five US universities and the HathiTrust digital library project.
The complaint submitted in the US District Court for the Southern District of New York claims the universities obtained unauthorized scans from Internet giant Google of an estimated seven million copyright-protected books.
It said the universities, through the HathiTrust consortium, plan to allow unlimited downloads by students and faculty members of so-called "orphan" works -- copyright-protected books whose authors cannot be located.
"By digitizing, archiving, copying and now publishing the copyrighted works without the authorization of those works' rights holders, the universities are engaging in one of the largest copyright infringements in history," the lawsuit said.
"This is an upsetting and outrageous attempt to dismiss authors' rights," Angelo Loukakis, executive director of the Australian Society of Authors, said in a joint statement with the Authors Guild and other plaintiffs.
"This group of American universities has no authority to decide whether, when or how authors forfeit their copyright protection," Loukakis said. "These aren't orphaned books, they're abducted books."
Other parties to the complaint are the Quebec Writers Union, children's book author Pat Cummings, novelists Loukakis, Roxana Robinson, Daniele Simpson and Fay Weldon, poet Andre Roy, Shakespeare scholar James Shapiro, and Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer T.J. Stiles.
The universities named in the lawsuit are the University of Michigan, the University of California, the University of Wisconsin, Indiana University, and Cornell University.
The authors and writers said the universities have, "without permission, digitized and loaded onto HathiTrust's online servers thousands of editions, in various translations."
"These books, because of the universities' and Google's unlawful actions, are now at needless, intolerable digital risk," Authors Guild president Scott Turow said.
"Authors shouldn't have to trust their works to a group that's making up the rules as it goes along," Turow said.
In March, a US District Court judge dealt a major setback to Google's book-scanning project, rejecting a settlement hammered out by the Internet giant with authors and publishers -- including the Authors Guild.
The 2008 settlement resulted from a class action lawsuit filed in 2005 by the Authors Guild and the Association of American Publishers (AAP) charging Google with copyright infringement over its digital book-scanning project.
A hearing in the case is to be held in New York on Thursday.