Publishers Sue Internet Archive for Copyright Infringement

The online library loosened restrictions on its collection of scanned books at the end of March in response to the pandemic

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The plaintiffs argue that the online library’s offerings are theft. Richard Newstead/Getty Images

On Monday, four major U.S. publishers sued Internet Archive over its online library, where it offers scans of millions of books for free, temporary download.

Normally, Internet Archive’s library sets restrictions on the distribution of its 1.4 million books currently under copyright, allowing only one reader to check out a title at a time. (It also offers 2.5 million public domain books unrestricted.) But at the end of March, the nonprofit made the controversial decision to remove waitlists and create the National Emergency Library.

The plaintiffs, which include Hachette Book Group, HarperCollins Publishers, John Wiley & Sons and Penguin Random House, argue that the online library’s offerings—even before the March move—are theft, the New York Times’ Elizabeth A. Harris reports.

“Without any license or any payment to authors or publishers, Internet Archive scans print books, uploads these illegally scanned books to its servers, and distributes verbatim digital copies of the books in whole via public-facing websites,” write the plaintiffs in papers filed in federal court in New York, reports Hillel Italie at the Associated Press. “With just a few clicks, any Internet-connected user can download complete digital copies of in-copyright books.”

Internet Archive maintains that because its collection has been built through donations, purchases and partnerships with academic libraries, it is run like a public library. During the coronavirus pandemic, public libraries shut down, and the National Emergency Library was presented as a way for teachers and students to access reading materials during remote learning.

“As a library, the Internet Archive acquires books and lends them, as libraries have always done,” Internet Archive founder Brewster Kahle told the Verge’s Russell Brandom. “This supports publishing and authors and readers. Publishers suing libraries for lending books—in this case, protected digitized versions, and while schools and libraries are closed—is not in anyone’s interest.”

Before April, Internet Archive’s library treated each scan like a physical book that could only be borrowed by one person at a time for a period of two weeks. Other readers could form a waitlist behind the current borrower. But at the end of March, the National Emergency Library abolished those waitlists, allowing an unlimited number of people to download a scan at any given time. The scans are protected to prevent distribution by borrowers, and Internet Archive argues that their practices fall under fair use.

However, as the New York Times’ Alexandra Alter reported in March, Internet Archive does not obtain licenses for the digital books that it lends, and public libraries do. Although Internet Archive emphasizes that authors are welcome to request that their work is removed from the library—and that some authors have requested that their books are added to it—authors are not notified when their books are scanned and made available for free.

Writer and Authors Guild president Douglas Preston says in a statement that the “wholesale scanning and posting of copyrighted books without the consent of authors, and without paying a dime, is piracy hidden behind a sanctimonious veil of progressivism,” according to the New York Times.

The lawsuit argues that Internet Archive’s approach is a threat to the ecosystem that supports writing and book publishing. The Authors Guild pointed out this spring that full-time book authors make an average of $20,300 from their writing each year, none of which comes from Internet Archive’s library because of how it’s run.

The lawsuit is “disappointing,” Kahle tells the Verge, adding, “We hope this can be resolved quickly.”