Future of the Internet Archive set to be decided in copyright lawsuit

20 Mar 2023

Image: © Adrienne/Stock.adobe.com

Four of the world’s biggest publishers are suing the Internet Archive for alleged ‘digital piracy on an industrial scale’.

A US court will hear the arguments of four major publishers today (20 March) against online library the Internet Archive on grounds that the digital book lender violates copyright laws.

Based in San Francisco, the Internet Archive is one of the world’s most well-known libraries for scanned copies of millions of physical books that it lends to people all over the globe for free.

While it usually only allows a limited number of individuals to borrow a digital book at a time, this rule was relaxed during Covid-19, prompting publishers to sue the online library for alleged copyright infringement.

At 1pm ET, Hachette, John Wiley & Sons, Penguin Random House and HarperCollins will argue in a New York court against the Internet Archive for its controlled digital lending.

The publishers allege the online library’s practice “constitutes wilful digital piracy on an industrial scale” that hurts writers and publishers alike, the Wall Street Journal reports.

William Adams, general counsel for HarperCollins Publishers, told the publication the archive’s approach has no basis in law. “What they’re doing is supplanting what authors and publishers do with libraries and have been doing for a long time,” he said.

But those in support of the Internet Archive and its mission to make more digital books available to people for free describe the lawsuit as “totally absurd”.

“Big Media’s lobbyists have been running a smear campaign trying to paint the Internet Archive as a greedy big tech operation bent on stealing books,” writes Fight for the Future, a digital rights organisation that has started a campaign to gather supporters for the online library.

“If you’ve ever used the WayBack Machine, listened to their wonderful archives of live music, or checked out one of their 37m texts, it’s time to speak up.”

Controlled digital lending as a practice is not confined to the Internet Archive. Other physical public libraries such as the Boston Public Library also use the same lending process to allow one person at a time to borrow books from digital archives.

“This is happening because major publishers offer no option for libraries to permanently purchase digital books and carry out their traditional role of preservation,” explained the Battle for Libraries campaign on their website, calling the suing publishers “malicious gatekeepers”.

“But it looks bad if publishers sue the Boston Public Library. So instead, they’ve launched an attack on a ground-breaking nonprofit, including a lawsuit with clear repercussions for every library in the US.”

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Vish Gain is a journalist with Silicon Republic