Why is the press so bumfuzzled about copyright issues?

Press Media Conference Microphones

During a recent scan of the Authors Guild discussion boards, where I look for copyright related comments, I noticed a couple of authors mentioning how dismayed they were to hear the NPR show 1A host a one-sided conversation about the Internet Archive being sued by several major publishers. The program, which aired on December 7, hosted Internet Archive founder Brewster Kahle, along with Melanie Huggins of the American Library Association and John Bracken of the Digital Public Library of America.

The segments of the show extolling the virtues of libraries and discussing their digital futures were valid conversations worth having, but my friends at AG were right to take issue with the producers at 1A in regard to the conflict between Internet Archive and the publishers over copyright infringement. WAMU had provided a forum for advocates of policy positions directly opposed to authors’ interests and did so without inviting any authors to participate. Instead, as the press often does it seems, 1A amplified the too-simple narrative about King John publishers and Robin Hood librarians, as if the writers of the books necessary to both institutions do not have anything to say on the matter.

If 1A and others don’t want to host a serious conversation about the legal doctrines implied by the theory called “Controlled Digital Lending,” or they don’t want to discuss the library associations’ hopes to amend §109 of the Copyright Act, fine. If they don’t want to invite counsel for the Association of American Publishers to debate these nuanced legal matters, so be it. But before providing yet another platform for those who promote the “evil publisher” narrative, perhaps some consideration for the relationship between publishers and writers is warranted.

I don’t know. Maybe Macy’s will never talk to Gimbels. Because it seems to me that public radio shows feature in-depth interviews with authors all the time. Clearly, somebody in the ambit of NPR understands that before publishers or libraries can make books available, writers have to write them. And writing books is what we call work. And using anyone’s work without license is what we call exploitation, which is precisely what writers feel when Brewster Kahle (who is a multi-millionaire, by the way) and the executives at library associations presume to make books available in ways that contravene licensing regimes governed by copyright law.

It is very disappointing when journalists in a position to shape public perception on background issues like copyright law are apparently so star struck by Kahle’s utopian shtick that they ignore the individuals whose lives would be affected by the ideas he and his friends are promoting. I wonder if the producers were even aware that Kahle lied at the top of the program about the publishers’ lawsuit, when he flatly stated, “They’re accusing the Internet Archive of lending books,” and then further insinuated that the lawsuit came out of the blue at the start of the pandemic.

Commenting as a lifelong liberal, I can say that was Kahle throwing red meat to a presumably liberal audience, no less bloviating bullshit than anything that ever flowed from the maw of Jim Jordan. Because in this case, Kahle omitted the crucial detail that what triggered the lawsuit was his decision to release 1.4 million books without license or restriction, describe the move as a “National Emergency Library” (NLE), and claim that it was Internet Archive’s response to an urgent need during the early days of the COVID shutdown. (See post here for discussion.)

But Kahle is not so naïve and innocent as he presented himself on the broadcast. The NLE was a stunt—one worthy of Barnum—that seized upon the emergency atmosphere of the first wave in the pandemic to advance a broader anti-copyright agenda. And he had to know it would force the publishers to sue. Like any activist, Kahle wants to control narrative, which is an understandable tactic but should be seen as a tactic, and one that had nothing to do with responding to a public need, let alone showing any respect for authors.

Unfortunately, the producers at 1A, like much of the press, seem to remain blissfully unaware that the copyright agenda promoted by Kahle and the library associations is not narrow but would, if achieved, affect professionals across most if not all areas of copyrighted works. So, in this regard, perhaps they might take a glance at their own web page, read ©WAMU at the bottom, and ask themselves what that means in the broader conversation they are not quite having.

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