In the wake of legal pressure, the Internet Archive said this week it would stop lending books to people without library access during the pandemic.
“The National Emergency Library will close on June 16, rather than June 30, returning to traditional controlled digital lending,” the Internet Archive’s Brewster Kahle writes. “We moved up our schedule because four commercial publishers chose to sue Internet Archive during a global pandemic … The complaint attacks the concept of any library owning and lending digital books, challenging the very idea of what a library is in the digital world.”
Those four publishers, in case you’re interested in boycotting them, are Hachette, HarperCollins, John Wiley & Sons. and Penguin Random House. (And it’s worth pointing out that three of the four—Hachette, HarperCollins, and Penguin—previously illegally colluded with Apple to raise eBooks prices in the United States and Europe. All were found guilty or quickly settled their cases in both jurisdictions.)
They, along with the Association of American Publishers, previously argued that the Internet Archive’s temporary policy of providing disadvantaged pandemic sufferers with a way to borrow books digitally infringed on the “intellectual investment of authors and the financial investment of publishers.” Primarily the latter, one imagines.
But what did the Internet Archive really do?
In March, as the COVID-19 pandemic was closing businesses, and triggering stay-at-home orders worldwide, the Internet Archive announced that it was temporarily lifting its restrictions on digital book lending—which involve making each scanned book available to one person at a time for up to 14 days—so that users, unable to borrow books from brick-and-mortar libraries, would have another avenue for reading.
At issue is the legal gray area in which the Internet Archive has scanned and made available its 1.3 million book collection: Unlike traditional libraries, which license books from publishers, the Internet Archive relies on book donations from individuals. It then scans the books and makes them available to one person at a time.
I took advantage of this service last summer while we were on our home swap when I borrowed two early 1990s-era books about COM from the Archive for research purposes while I was writing the Programming Windows series. The Internet Archive’s Way Back Machine was (still is) also a vital resource for this research.
As the author of about 30 books, and as someone who has repeatedly experienced the theft of the content I create, I fully support this service since, like a real library, it provides a way for users to experience books they either can’t afford. Or are, as in my situation, out of print and hard to find in physical form. In fact, I’m pleased to see that the Internet Archive has digitized several of my print books, meaning that they will live in digital form forever.
Many authors of more traditional books also support this effort, though many do not, of course. And that’s how the Association of American Publishers got involved.
“All they’ve done is scan a lot of books and put them on the internet, which makes them no different from any other piracy site,” Mary Rasenberger of the Authors Guild told the New York Times. “If you can get anything that you want that’s on [the] Internet Archive for free, why are you going to buy an e-book?”
Here’s how it’s different: Unlike actual piracy sites, the Internet Archive is a non-profit organization whose stated goal is to build a digital library of Internet sites and other cultural artifacts in digital form. And here’s why: It doesn’t provide any content to any person for free indefinitely.
You may disagree. But it’s an interesting debate.
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