Internet Archive Will Lose Big In Suit With Publishers

There is one consistent flaw inherent to most anti-copyright agendas. Because so many contemporary theories and attitudes tilting against copyright are largely predicated on the introduction of digital technologies, a false dichotomy persists between access and authorship. Since the days of NAPSTER, authors have endured a litany of techsplaining on the (not quite true) theme that the cost of access (i.e. reproduction and distribution) is “near zero” in a digital market.

To this incomplete view of the market, authors in every medium have worked harder than should be necessary to remind people that the human investment in the creation of works has not been substantially altered, regardless of the many changes in the way works are consumed in the digital market. Book writing is a clear example of this principle. It takes the author the same amount of time, energy, talent, etc. to write the book, regardless of whether it will be read in the form of digital, clothbound, paperback, or audiobook copies. Yet, time and again, endeavors to weaken copyright, through litigation and PR tactics, continue to focus almost exclusively on access to works, as if authorship of existing works never happened and authorship of future works is assured.

And that brings us to one of the more dramatic stunts in the service of anti-copyright zealotry—the launching on March 24 of the so-called National Emergency Library by the Internet Archive. On the claim that the coronavirus shutdown created unmet “educational” needs, the NEL provided unlimited access, worldwide, to an estimated 1.3 million books.* Several news organizations, eager to report positive stories at the leading edge of the health crisis, applauded the IA for its apparent munificence. But this enthusiasm was soon tempered, as authors spoke up and reminded journalists and the public that IA had no right—either legal or moral—to make “gifts” of other people’s works.

I will admit that, prior to the NEL, I had not paid too much attention to the Internet Archive. I was aware that its founder Brewster Kahle is an outspoken copyright critic, but so are many real librarians, who I would describe as well-intentioned but misguided in their chronic support of various infringing, commercial ventures. As mentioned in the past, I have certainly used the Internet Archive to research works long out of copyright, and I wondered in this older post whether the archive’s usefulness truly needed the kind of anti-copyright rhetoric espoused by Kahle. But that was naïve. Because Kahle is a zealot.

When IA used the cover of a global crisis to provide unlimited access to over one-million books, it was not to fulfill an urgent need, least of all an educational one. Even if this had been a sincere goal, it would not have been possible for IA to assess any gaps in the nation’s educational demands as early as March 24—and this fact is only emphasized by the indiscriminate assortment of in-copyright books, like romance novels and thrillers, that IA made available. These are likely not part of any school’s curriculum. Meanwhile, legitimate publishers of widely-used educational books did respond to the pandemic by providing free and/or broader digital access for teachers and students.

The National Emergency Library was a PR statement—a stunt orchestrated by an anti-copyright ideologue seeking to advance an agenda. Given the unfounded legal theories upon which the NEL was announced, it is plausible that Kahle was fishing for a lawsuit, hoping either to turn those legal theories into caselaw precedents, or to use the PR narrative of victimhood upon losing.

If getting sued was the goal, this was accomplished on June 1st. Four of the major book publishers filed suit in the Southern District of New York alleging copyright infringement. Reading the complaint, I predict that IA will lose across the board (i.e. on all defenses). But, beyond that, assuming all the allegations are supported by evidence, the complaint provides a glimpse into just how insidious the IA venture really is–including ways in which it could pose a threat to legitimate libraries.

Under the copyright law, IA will most likely present a response based on statutory library carve-outs, and will reiterate its fair use “superpower” defense, based on the extraordinary circumstances of national quarantine. In the area of untested legal theory, IA will have the opportunity to present the concept it calls Controlled Digital Lending (CDL), a model that is not supported by law and not adopted by ordinary libraries.

Not Really A Library. Maybe A Business?

As already discussed in this post and elsewhere, the IA fails to meet the conditions of accredited libraries that would make its activities eligible for the statutory carve-outs for libraries and archives. With regard to fair use, there is nothing in case law to support the idea that a national emergency alters the fair use analysis, and it is hard to imagine the court will find the NEL to be anything other than an unlicensed substitute for existing legal sales and lending channels. Add to this analysis the ways in which the publishers describe IA as a multi-million-dollar commercial enterprise, and rather than expecting to prevail on fair use, IA could be seen as walking very close to the line of criminal copyright infringement.

The section of the complaint alleging that the not-for-profit Internet Archive looks highly commercial is more detailed than I can present here, but the summary states:

“IA has an interlocking web of contributions and commercial services that support its Website. In addition to receiving large-dollar donations, IA has made tens of millions of dollars from selling commercial services. One of the services it offers is industrial-scale book scanning and digitization, which has generated more than $25 million in revenue since 2011.”

For instance, when IA digitizes and distributes an in-copyright, contemporary book—the complaint shows Gladwell’s Blink as an exhibit—it is not only infringing two exclusive rights under §106, but it also displays a link to “Buy This Book,” which leads the reader to a “used” online bookstore called Better World Libraries operated by, you guessed it, Brewster Kahle. How this conduct is distinguishable from hosting an infringing work in order to generate ancillary revenue from ads or third-party sellers is not entirely clear. But suffice to say the more that infringing activity can be linked to a financial interest, the worse things look for the Internet Archive.

Controlled Digital Lending – A Legal Theory

The concept of Controlled Digital Lending (CDL) may sound to the average listener like a sensible proposal—it almost did to me—but it has at least three major flaws legally and one major flaw pragmatically. The idea is that a library may digitize any physical copy it owns and then loan a digital copy to as many readers at a time as it has physical copies in its collection.

The legal challenges to CDL are 1) that there is no statutory carve-out allowing libraries to do this; and 2) even if there were such a provision, auditing the physical collections supposedly backing the digital copies is a dubious prospect; and 3) when IA provides the commercial service of mass scanning “on behalf” of libraries, this auditing seems especially unlikely. It gets even more complicated with the IA supposedly housing containers full of books to back up its CDL model, but we’ll see where that leads.

As a practical matter, the way digital lending works now, with libraries licensing collections via third-party services like OverDrive, this is almost certainly more cost-effective than the clerical labor implied by a CDL model—if the intent were to remain in compliance. Hence, the CDL idea sounds logical in theory, but upon examination begins to look like an attempt to whittle away at copyright protections. Depending on what IA presents in its response, it may be very interesting to see what, if anything, the court says about CDL. Separately, one reason the authors and publishers issued such resounding condemnations of the National Emergency Library was the fact that even the restraints of CDL (e.g. one book-per-customer and wait lists) were removed in response to the pandemic.  

Authors, Publishers, and Real Libraries Already Collaborate

In his public response to the lawsuit, Kahle announced that the NEL will be closing earlier than planned and “returning to Controlled Digital Lending. He writes…

“We moved up our schedule because, last Monday, four commercial publishers chose to sue Internet Archive during a global pandemic.  However, this lawsuit is not just about the temporary National Emergency Library. The complaint attacks the concept of any library owning and lending digital books, challenging the very idea of what a library is in the digital world. This lawsuit stands in contrast to some academic publishers who initially expressed concerns about the NEL, but ultimately decided to work with us to provide access to people cut off from their physical schools and libraries. We hope that similar cooperation is possible here, and the publishers call off their costly assault.”

I wonder. If Kahle truly believes he his defending “any library,” he should welcome the lawsuit, especially when he cannot possibly be surprised to have triggered it. Of course, the reality is that IA is an outlier. It does not operate like “any library,” and that makes all the legal difference in the world. At the same time, the claim to want to collaborate with authors and publishers to “build a digital system that works” rings rather hollow. Infringing authors’ works en masse (let alone using a crisis an excuse to do so) is not a foundation for a collaborative partnership; and frankly, nobody really needs Kahle’s input in this regard. Digital access, especially to the kind of contemporary books in suit in this case, is widely available to consumers via multiple portals. Meanwhile, what working authors do need is to stop spending so much time fighting piracy at home as well as abroad.  


*Originally reported as 1.4 million when stories broke. Publishers’ complaint states 1.3 million.

© 2020, David Newhoff. All rights reserved.

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