The Internet Archive (IA) is a nonprofit organization that provides free access to millions of digital books, music, movies and other content. It also preserves historical web pages through its Wayback Machine. But its mission to democratize access to knowledge is under attack by four major book publishers.
In June 2020, Hachette, Penguin Random House, HarperCollins and John Wiley & Sons sued IA for copyright infringement. They accused IA of engaging in “wilful mass piracy” by lending digital books without permission or payment. They also targeted IA’s National Emergency Library, a temporary project that aimed to give teachers and students access to digital teaching materials during the COVID-19 pandemic.
IA argues that it is behaving like an ordinary library, as it only loans digital copies of physical books it owns. It uses a system called “controlled digital lending” (CDL), which allows only one person at a time to borrow a digital book. IA says this is a fair use of copyrighted works, as it does not harm the market for the original books.
However, the publishers claim that digital books are not equivalent to physical books and should be treated differently under the law. They say that IA is competing with their commercial e-book lending services, which charge libraries high fees for each copy of a digital book. They also say that IA’s National Emergency Library violated the principle of CDL by removing waitlists and allowing unlimited access to its collection.
The lawsuit has sparked a debate over the future of online libraries and the public’s right to access information. Many authors, librarians, academics and activists have expressed their support for IA and its services. They say that IA is a vital resource for people with print disabilities, researchers, educators and readers who cannot afford or access books otherwise. They also say that IA is preserving digital content for future generations and fostering a culture of sharing and learning.
On the other hand, some authors and publishers have criticized IA for hosting pirated content and undermining their income. They say that IA is violating their rights and interests by distributing their works without authorization or compensation. They also say that IA is harming the quality and diversity of literature by devaluing books and authors.
The outcome of the lawsuit could have significant implications for online libraries and the public domain. As one of IA’s supporters, the Electronic Frontiers Foundation, put it: “The publishers are seeking nothing less than control over how libraries across the country lend books.”