Why the National Emergency Library Is So Controversial

The Internet Archive describes the downloadable collection of more than one million books as a library, but critics call it piracy

National Emergency Library screenshot
More than 300 (and counting) universities, libraries and individuals in related fields have signed a statement in support of the National Emergency Library. Screenshot via the Internet Archive / National Emergency Library

Last week, the nonprofit Internet Archive launched a National Emergency Library featuring 1.4 million digitized books from the last century, all freely available for download without the usual one-at-a-time reader restriction.

Presented as a generous move in service of students and educators who no longer have access to their local libraries—many of which have closed in response to the COVID-19 pandemic—the announcement was initially met with praise. But backlash from authors and publishers has since framed the collection differently, presenting it as internet piracy that violates intellectual property laws.

“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,” says Mary Rasenberger, executive director of the Authors Guild, to the New York Times’ Alexandra Alter. “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?”

The Authors Guild and American Association of Publishers have each released statements condemning the online library. On Monday, the Internet Archive responded with a statement defending its program. Separately, reports the Times, more than 300 (and counting) colleges, libraries, universities and individuals in relevant fields have signed a public statement in support of the emergency library.

Normally, the archive has about 2.5 million public domain books available for download without constraint. An additional 1.4 million copyrighted books are accessible to one reader at a time for a two-week borrowing period. The Emergency Library removes that one-at-a-time restriction until the end of June, “or the end of the U.S. national emergency, whichever is later,” according to the original announcement. (See the Internet Archive’s list of frequently asked questions for more information on the initiative.)

“Effectively,” writes Adi Robertson for the Verge, “it sounds like the Internet Archive and libraries have built a uniquely massive repository of books, and in a moment of crisis, they’re prioritizing accessibility over nailing down a legal argument.”

National Emergency Library
“If you can get anything that you want that’s on [the] Internet Archive for free,” asks Mary Rasenberger, executive director of the Authors Guild, “why are you going to buy an e-book?” Screenshot via the Internet Archive / National Emergency Library

In its second statement, the Internet Archive emphasizes the digital collection’s emphasis on classic literature and out-of-print texts. Staples of American high school English classes, for instance, are readily available via the library; titles such as The Great Gatsby, Fahrenheit 451 and To Kill a Mockingbird abound on its virtual shelves.

“The Internet Archive has focused our collecting on books published between the 1920s and early 2000s, the vast majority of which don’t have a commercially available e-book,” says the organization. “Our collection priorities have focused on the broad range of library books to support education and scholarship and have not focused on the latest best sellers that would be featured in a bookstore.”

The Internet Archive built its collection through donations, purchases and partnerships with academic libraries—a process it likens to how physical libraries operate. Still, the trove of reading material also includes many contemporary titles, and as the New York Times points out, the National Emergency Library, unlike public libraries, doesn’t obtain licenses from publishers for the e-books it loans.

“The problem with bypassing copyright and disrupting the chain of royalties that lead[s] from books to authors is that it endangers our ability to continue to produce art—and though we are all in the midst of a crisis, most artists are on the razor’s edge in terms of being able to support themselves,” novelist Chuck Wendig tells Colin Dwyer of NPR in an email. “Artists get no safety net.”

The Authors Guild points out that, on average, authors earn $20,300 per year from their writing. None of that comes from programs like the National Emergency Library, which the guild says will cut into authors’ incomes and harm many who “are already struggling” to recover from canceled book tours and speaking engagements.

The Internet Archive argues that its digital lending program falls under the principle of fair use. It has a system in place for writers to request that their books be removed from the library, though authors are not notified when their work goes online.

“People who can afford to buy books should be buying books right now,” historian Jill Lepore, who wrote about the National Emergency Library’s launch for the New Yorker, tells the New York Times by email. (The Internet Archive expressed a similar sentiment in its original statement.) “But, meanwhile, in addition to a public health emergency, there is an educational emergency.”

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