Internet Archive, the legal battle against the most famous library on the net

Internet Archive, the legal battle against the most famous library on the net

Internet Archive

In March 2020, at the beginning of the first lockdown, in many parts of the world bookstores and libraries suddenly closed along with all the other unnecessary businesses. Given the emergency situation, the Open Library managed by the Internet Archive - which houses two million scanned books and makes them available online to one user at a time - decided to temporarily remove the limit to people who can consult a certain volume at the same time.

A move conceived by a non-profit organization which had the aim of facilitating free access to books in an exceptional moment, transforming it into the “National Emergency Library”. Although appreciable, the choice of the Internet Archive has not been accepted by numerous authors and especially by publishing houses such as Hachette, HarperCollins, Penguin Random House and others (all part of the Association of American Publishers), who have accused the Internet Archive of piracy and decided to sue for "copyright infringement".

The experiment, which should have ended at the end of June 2020, was consequently interrupted prematurely to meet the requests of the publishers. All right then? Absolutely not, because, unlike what might have been expected, the publishers have not withdrawn the case. On the contrary, the lawsuit is proceeding swiftly and could jeopardize the existence of the Internet Archive itself, a pioneering tool used by 1.5 million people every day and which offers fundamental services such as the Wayback Machine, through which it stores many of the contents of the network that would otherwise risk disappearing.

War on the Internet Archive

But why continue with the lawsuit given that any copyright infringement was extremely limited in time? "The Internet Archive is a pretext for the publishing industry, which aims to drastically limit the ability to lend books," Greg Newby, CEO and founder of the Project Gutenberg literary foundation, which collects and renders volumes whose copyright has expired (and has had its fair share of problems, even in Italy) available online.

According to numerous experts, the true will of publishers is to punish the technology used by Internet Archive to disseminate digital copies of books, namely Controlled Digital Lending (CDL, "controlled digital lending"). In a nutshell, it is the librarians themselves (even traditional ones) who scan the books they have supplied and then make them available - only one copy at a time - to those who request them, simultaneously removing the physical volume from the shelf (precisely to avoid protests from publishers).

Libraries, however, often use another method more appreciated by publishers: they pay a subscription to applications, such as Libby, which allow you to lend books but only a certain number of times . After that, the library must renew the subscription or all the books disappear. The differences are evident: with the CDL it is the bookseller himself who scans the book, with the result that he can also digitize volumes that do not exist in the ebook version and can keep the digital copy forever. In the second case, it is the application that provides under subscription - and therefore temporarily - only the books for which the digital version is already available.

The advantages of the CDL are evident for librarians, for readers, but also for authors, who can legally distribute their books online even when they have not been made available in an ebook version. “Unfortunately, many authors don't make a lot of money with their work,” continues Newby: “They write because they have something to say and they want their words - their art - to be available to as many people as possible. Many authors would prefer their work to be widely read, albeit for free or at very little cost. Instead, the publishing industry is taking the opposite approach. In ebooks sold commercially, it has become traditional to cover the digital book with a license that prevents its sharing and resale, thus distinguishing itself from what can be done with physical copies ".

A question bigger

"It is now well established that the Internet Archive can buy books and scan them," Stephen Witt, a journalist expert on piracy and copyright, explained, speaking with Slate: "The real question is to what extent you can lend these copies if you do not have the approval of the publisher ”. The problem can also widen, since the Internet Archive certainly does not keep only books: it also contains music albums, periodicals, films and even television shows. All subject to copyright with different functioning.

At the moment, the lawsuit concerns only the 127 works kept in the archive owned by the plaintiff publishers. However, this is not a trivial case: if the judge were to agree with the publishers, the Internet Archive would have to pay about 19 million dollars. An enormous figure for a non-profit, even if in recent years - thanks above all to donations - the finances available to the Archive have shown to be able to withstand the blow.

“I also think that the Internet Archive may win the case - continues Greg Newby -. The court understands the role of fair use (the practice that allows certain uses of works covered by copyright) and its role in balancing the rights of copyright holders, and they will realize that fair use applies to this situation. The current practices with which libraries lend books, whether printed or digital, are based on their historical role, their interaction with publishers and with decades-long practices. However, these practices must be updated to better adapt to the modern reality of digital or digitized books ".

More than twenty years after the Napster case, the libertarian idea at the basis of the internet - free and free circulation of knowledge and culture - risks suffering another severe blow. Recently, however, 300 authors - including Neil Gaiman and Naomi Klein - signed an appeal accusing publishers of wanting to "intimidate libraries".

On the other hand, are we really sure that piracy still damages the economy of culture and entertainment today? “It's just a theory and maybe publishers will have a chance in court to prove it,” concludes Newby. “The availability of free copies online could actually increase sales, increase an author's notoriety or trigger word of mouth. The biggest difficulty for authors and artists is getting attention. The Internet Archive helps to level the playing field, as do traditional libraries. It is a mission that takes us back to the most idealistic days of the internet, when creating communities around shared themes and freeing up access to information was more central. A mission similar to the one we have with Project Gutenberg ”.

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