March 31, 2020

The Internet Archive is writing a new chapter in the ongoing battle over e-books

The Internet Archive removed restrictions on its e-library, which delighted readers and rankled authors.

Last week, the Internet Archive launched a National Emergency Library, making 1.4m+ books — including copyrighted titles — immediately available to readers across the world. 

Normally, the Internet Archive’s Open Library lets readers check out books online or join waitlists if texts are already spoken for — kinda like a physical library.

But to address an “unprecedented global and immediate need for access to reading and research materials,” the archive decided to remove its restrictive waitlists — and, in the process, break controlled digital lending rules that normally prevent e-libraries from over-lending.

And not everyone was on the same page

The library was a hit among readers: ~20k people signed up in its first 2 days, and The New Yorker called it a “gift to readers everywhere.”

But the Authors Guild and the Association of American Publishers both criticized the program, with the Guild arguing the Internet Archive “is using a global crisis to advance a copyright ideology that violates current federal law and hurts most authors.”  

But the Internet Archive defended its decision…

In a post 2 days ago, it argued that extraordinary times (like the closure of most physical libraries) called for extraordinary measures — like ditching “controlled digital lending” rules. 

But authors argued that those extraordinary measures are “further harming the marketplace for books — at a time when the industry is already feeling incredible pain from the bookstore and library closures.”

Now, the question is: What even IS the purpose of an e-library?

It’s a chicken-or-egg question: Which comes first, the writer or the writing?

  • The Internet Archive says libraries are primarily responsible to readers, arguing they’ve existed to promote science and encourage learning since before copyright laws even existed.
  • Authors and publishers say libraries are equally responsible to writers (who earned average incomes of ~$20k per year before the crisis), arguing there wouldn’t be any science to promote or learning to encourage without writers.

The Internet Archive could face legal challenges down the road: Google’s universal library project, Google Books, was sued and spent 10 years in court (before it ultimately won).

But the National Emergency Library was never meant to last forever — it will run through June 30, or the end of the US national emergency, whichever is later.

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