Internet Archive, the largest library on the internet violates copyright

Internet Archive, the largest library on the internet violates copyright

Internet Archive

One lesson I learned early in life is never to piss off a librarian. But US federal judge John G. Koetl apparently doesn't think so, considering his recent ruling against the Internet Archive, a beloved nonprofit that operates the internet's largest digital library.

The lawsuit against the Internet Archive

Let's briefly recap the story from the beginning: during the first lockdowns imposed during the Covid-19 pandemic, the Internet Archive launched a program called the National Emergency Library, or Nel . Since the closure of libraries had taken several million books out of circulation, the organization wanted to help those stranded at home access information. In was part of a larger project called the Open Libraries Initiative, in which the Internet Archive began scanning physical copies of library books for people to borrow digitally.

The project – thought to be temporary – it was shut down early after some major publishing houses sued the Internet Archive for copyright infringement. Late last week Koetl sided with the publishers. The federal judge did not believe the organization's thesis, according to which the digitization project was part of Fair Use, the US doctrine that allows the use of copyrighted content for information purposes. The Internet Archive plans to appeal the ruling .

In general, I welcome the work of the Internet Archive (its digital archive of the internet, the Wayback machine , deserves all the praise it gets). On the other hand, however, I also support the efforts of authors to protect their intellectual property and earn . Even before the lawsuit, some writers had criticized Nel, pointing out how the project threatened the authors' livelihoods. In the United States, some professional associations such as the National Writers Union, the union of freelance authors, and the Authors Guild, have hailed Koetl's sentence as a victory for creatives.

Personally, I struggle to take sides . Making it easier and cheaper for libraries to borrow ebooks obviously seems like a commendable initiative. However, it is equally obvious that taking money away from authors is a bad thing. The story is part of the broader debate on artists' salaries, on what it means to own digital works and on excessive price increases by companies.

I asked several people on both sides of the debate, to better understand their positions. I spent countless hours on the phone, feeling like a child listening to his divorced parents complain about each other.

Polarized debate

One important thing to understand about this to the ongoing conflict is that ebooks and physical books are sold to libraries in different ways. Unlike physical books, ebooks are licensed to libraries, which therefore do not own them. Each publisher can set up the licenses as he sees fit, which in some cases are fixed-term, while in others they are renewed based on the number of loans. Compared to a hard copy, keeping an ebook in circulation can cost libraries significantly more. Understandably, many librarians find these conditions to be exploitative. Academic librarian Caroline Ball, who lives in the UK, told me that in one case an economics textbook would cost the library where she works £16,000 (over €18,000) for a single year. According to Ball, the recent ruling will have disastrous effects for libraries, as he takes the side of the publishing houses that impose these onerous licensing agreements: "It's reprehensible," he says.

Edward Hasbrouck, writer, independent journalist and a volunteer at the National Writers Union, doesn't feel the same way. On the contrary: he is enthusiastic about the sentence. Hasbrouck argues that the judge made the right decision and that the Internet Archive (which is based in San Francisco) has the "typical Silicon Valley attitude, don't give a damn about the laws". The writer finds it offensive to blame the ruling on unfair licensing agreements: "Actually, the Internet Archive tried to impose its own licensing terms on us, so free ebooks," he comments. Hasbrouck adds that older writers with large catalogs are often hardest hit by the loss of ebook licensing deals.

Authors Guild CEO Mary Rasenberger also sees the ruling as a win for ebooks. writers . When I asked her if more people borrowing books from the online library could really have a substantial impact on writers' income, Rasenberger replied that she thinks it is: "It's remarkable that, with the increase of lending ebooks in libraries, the income of publishers and authors has decreased " (in support of his claims, Rasenberger says he consulted the data of a publisher, which he did not share with US ).

Juliya Ziskina, policy fellow of the non-profit association Library Futures, strongly disagrees with this thesis: " It is a misplaced accusation to say that libraries are making authors lose money – she comments -: it is a bit like saying that every time you drink tap water, a company that makes bottled water loses money.”

Ziskina believes it is wrong to frame the affair as a litigation between libraries and writers. “Publishers are making record profits,” she continues, also pointing out that underpaid authors could ask their publishers for more money instead of complaining about libraries.

But tension between the two factions remains high. While more than a thousand authors recently signed a letter in support of digital libraries, specifically criticizing the lawsuit against the Internet Archive – further proof that it is incorrect to say that the writers took one side or the other as a group – it should be emphasized that many of the authors I interviewed, including some of those who signed the letter, expressed ambivalent positions on the matter, preferring not to speak about it in public.

It is too early to say whether the appeal of the Internet Archive will be successful. For Ziskina the legal battle is simply the latest front in a much longer war, which librarians are winning: “Publishers have fought with libraries over every single pro-user innovation since microfilm in the 1890s ", tells . As for the next round, however, she remains cautiously hopeful: "Based on the precedents, [the Court of Appeals for the, ed.] Second Circuit has generally ruled in favor of libraries". The opposing side is equally optimistic, as evidenced by Hasbrouck's words: "We hope and expect them to lose".

This article is excerpted from the US newsletter Plaintext.

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