Brief in Defense of CDL Indicts Internet Archive and CDL

Among the amici who filed briefs in Hachette v. Internet Archive is former law professor and library director Michelle Wu, who, as the brief states, “…is recognized by many as the originator of the legal theory underlying controlled digital lending (“CDL”) ….” With her brief, Wu seeks to defend CDL as a doctrine and asks the court to limit its considerations to the facts related solely to IA’s conduct and to reject what she calls the publishers’ overbroad “attack” on CDL itself. She states:

CDL takes many forms. Many libraries around the United States offer works through CDL subject to their own individual platforms and practices. The arguments offered by Plaintiffs in support of their motion for summary judgment are a broad-based attack on all of them, shoehorning the very concept of CDL into a dispute about the Internet Archive’s individual implementation of it.

Before addressing the arguments presented in the brief, it is noteworthy that if Ms. Wu would have CDL inoculated against the conduct of Internet Archive, she and her colleagues have had ample time to distance themselves and the legal theory from IA’s founder and avowed anti-copyright crusader Brewster Kahle. Because one year after IA engaged in the infringing conduct that triggered the publishers’ litigation (March 2020), Wu was a key member in a Public Knowledge-hosted panel with Kahle (March 2021), entitled Burying Information – Big Tech & Access to Information.

Promoted in the wake of the January 6th insurrection as a remedy to misinformation, the panel blamed copyright law for contributing to the perils of widespread ignorance and conspiracy theories threatening democracy. Specifically, Wu et al. touted CDL as a necessary alternative to ebook library licensing on the grounds that this licensing is somehow keeping knowledge away from the very people who need it. Further, nobody on the panel disputed Kahle’s allegations that the publishers’ suit against IA was an attack on CDL and libraries in general.

So, in addition to the fact that it seems hypocritical for Wu to now ask the court to distinguish the underlying theory of CDL from the conduct and agenda of IA, it is no surprise that the arguments she presents echo the same general complaints against copyright rights articulated in that panel discussion. For instance, Wu reprises the theme that libraries are sentinels against the tide of rampant mis- and disinformation in the digital age—and repeats the claim that CDL is integral to that mission. “CDL is an essential pillar of countering misinformation by making library materials accessible, relevant, and competitive,” the brief states.

Even if that premise were not magical thinking (because lack of access is not the cause of the dangerously misinformed), Wu paints with too broad a brush in defense of her theory that CDL is inherently legal. Aside from the fact that there is no evidence that all the access to all the books in the world will disburse the fact-immune hoards from laying siege to reason,[1] Wu’s faith in the contrary belies a general prejudice against copyright law in lieu of articulating a concise argument for the narrow opinion she claims to want from the court.

Moreover, Wu may be blind to the fatal flaw in her central argument when she says that “many libraries” use CDL in different ways to achieve a variety of purposes. The problem with her list of general examples (e.g., CDL for preservation, serving readers with disabilities, etc.) is twofold. First, many of the examples stated or implied are activities exempted for libraries by statute. Second, the possibility that certain activities of several libraries may be allowed by fair use undermines the broad sweep of Wu’s defense by emphasizing that fair use is a fact-intensive, case-by-case consideration.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, a fair use defense does not turn on a particular method of copying or making a work available. The CDL theory asserts that it is legal for a library to essentially make its own ebooks from the printed books in its collection, as long as it never loans more electronic copies than it owns physical copies that were legally obtained. Wu’s brief impliedly acknowledges that Internet Archive did not adhere to the “controlled” part of CDL, but in seeking to rescue “real CDL,” the brief is tellingly overstuffed with allegations that, even if true, are not applicable to a question of fair use.

For instance, Wu refers to budgetary constraints of libraries and the supposedly onerous cost of ebook licensing by publishers. But even if this allegation were valid for most libraries—and it does not appear to be—it would say nothing about whether a library’s version of CDL would fall under the fair use exception. On the contrary, Wu’s complaint about existing ebook licensing effectively acknowledges that CDL is a means of bypassing that licensing model and implies that this is justified by cost.

This argument is barely distinguishable from familiar rationalizations for large-scale piracy, which any court should find unpersuasive in general and should find meaningless as a fair use question. The amount of a licensing fee demanded for any work is immaterial to the question of whether a user who avoids paying the license is making a fair use. Wu’s attention to the cost of ebook licensing seems meant to distract from the reality that, even with the controls in force as prescribed by the CDL theory, the model displaces the authors’ right to license ebooks on their terms to libraries. And this market substitute consideration should ultimately doom a fair use defense on all four factors.

This consideration would be unaffected, even if ebook licenses were shown to be onerous because such a complaint, if valid, would properly sound in antitrust law or consumer protection or be argued before Congress seeking a new library-based exemption in the Copyright Act.[2] But because allegations of burdensome pricing models are not properly addressed by fair use, this suggests, again, that Wu and her colleagues defending CDL are admitting that the model is a market substitute and believe that it should be based on their own ideological reasoning

Several aspects of Internet Archive’s operation, including the activities at issue in this litigation, disqualify the entity from statutory exemptions accorded to libraries in Section 108 of the Copyright Act. Inasmuch as IA tries to stand in the shoes of real libraries, this is a PR message for social media but one without a foundation in law. And because IA is not a real library, a finding that its conduct is legal would only further embolden any commercial enterprise to engage in mass, unlicensed digitization and distribution of ebooks and other works.

By contrast, Wu’s insinuation of difficulties for legit libraries engaged in “many forms” of CDL are either unfounded or, perhaps, they inadvertently implicate some of those libraries in infringing conduct. Either way, facts pertaining to the operation of some number of unnamed libraries are not before the court in this case, and only a detailed accounting of those facts, library-by-library could have any legal bearing on those activities. As such, we must conclude that Wu and her colleagues simply want the courts to find that CDL is automatically fair use, and this would be doctrinally absurd. Because the courts are well aware that no conduct is automatically fair use. Not even for libraries.

[1] As noted in my post about that panel, the entire Western canon is more widely and freely available than at any time in history.

[2] In fact, the state ebook licensing laws for libraries have largely been premised on consumer protection and still failed, thus far, as unconstitutional state compulsory licenses.

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