from the get-over-it dept
It’s been said many times over that if libraries did not currently exist, there’s no way that publishers would allow them to come into existence today. Libraries are, in fact, a lovely and important artifact of a pre-copyright time when we actually valued knowledge sharing, rather than locking up knowledge behind a paywall. Last week, the Internet Archive announced what it’s calling a National Emergency Library — a very useful and sensible offering, as we’ll explain below. However, publishers and their various organizations freaked out (leading some authors to freak out as well). The freak out is not intellectually honest or consistent, but we’ll get there.
As you may or may not know, for a while now, the Internet Archive and many other libraries have been using a system called Controlled Digital Lending, which was put together to enable digital checkouts of books for which there may not be any ebooks available. Basically, the Archive helped a bunch of libraries scan a ton of books, and the libraries lend them out just as if they were lending out regular books. They keep the physical copy on the shelf and will not lend out more copies of the digital book than the physical copies they hold — basically doing exactly what a library does. There are strong arguments for why this is clearly legal. Scanning a book you own is legal. Lending out books is legal.
Of course, when CDL was first announced, publishers (mainly) and The Authors Guild (which, contrary to its name, tends to be a front group for publishers, rather than authors) completely lost their shit and whined about how this was piracy. Remember, the Authors Guild has already tried suing libraries for scanning books and failed miserably. Challenging this effort at lending scans of books would also likely fail.
One important thing to note: the scans of books that are part of the CDL effort are not great. They are images of actual book pages, and not anything like ebooks that are designed to be read nicely on a Kindle or whatnot. No one would choose a CDL book over a regular ebook if given the choice, because the experience is not nearly as good.
The big news with the National Emergency Library is basically the removal of waitlists for checking out these books. They still have DRM and you still only can access the books for two weeks, but unlike with CDL where there was a 1 to 1 ratio of which books the Internet Archive had a physical copy of and those which it would lend out, the NEL removed that limitation and made it so that more people could access those books at once. The reasoning here is sound: in the midst of this pandemic, most physical libraries are closed, so most people literally cannot get physical books. They are sitting there unlendable. To help deal with that, the Internet Archive removed the waitlists on the books it had scanned. As the Archive explained, it focused heavily on making sure books with no ebook-availability (and educational books) were available:
The Internet Archive has focused our collecting on books published between the 1920s and early 2000s, the vast majority of which don?t have a commercially available ebook. Our collection priorities have focused on the broad range of library books to support education and scholarship and have not focused on the latest best sellers that would be featured in a bookstore.
Further, there are approximately 650 million books in public libraries that are locked away and inaccessible during closures related to COVID-19. Many of these are print books that don?t have an ebook equivalent except for the version we?ve scanned. For those books, the only way for a patron to access them while their library is closed is through our scanned copy.
But, of course, almost immediately after this was announced the very same groups that already insisted that CDL was “piracy” jumped on this to scream from the heavens about “piracy” in making these books available to people stuck at home. The Authors Guild flipped out:
IA has no rights whatsoever to these books, much less to give them away indiscriminately without consent of the publisher or author. We are shocked that the Internet Archive would use the Covid-19 epidemic as an excuse to push copyright law further out to the edges, and in doing so, harm authors, many of whom are already struggling.
This is false. The Internet Archive has every right to those books — all of which were purchased or donated. And the Authors Guild already failed in its lawsuit saying that the books couldn’t be scanned, so it’s just making stuff up now to get even angrier than it was before. There is no more “harm” to authors than there is during the days when libraries are open and people could (as per normal) borrow these books. Again, the real thing the Authors Guild hates here is libraries.
The Association of American Publishers (run by fired former Copyright Office boss Maria Pallante) also freaked out:
?It is the height of hypocrisy that the Internet Archive is choosing this moment ? when lives, livelihoods and the economy are all in jeopardy ? to make a cynical play to undermine copyright, and all the scientific, creative, and economic opportunity that it supports.?
No, it’s the height of hypocrisy for publishers to attack a basic thing that libraries have done for centuries: lending out books that they own for limited periods of time to support the spread of knowledge — especially given how stingy publishers themselves have been in embracing ebooks and easier access to knowledge.
The National Writers Union also insisted that rather than doing this, we should be spending taxpayer funds on repurchasing all these books that have already been purchased? That’s the best I can figure out from this argument.
The argument is that students need e-books while they are staying home. But that?s an argument for spending public funds to purchase or license those resources for public use ? not putting the burden of providing educational materials for free on writers, illustrators, and photographers. Authors also need to eat and pay rent during this crisis.
Again, that argument makes no sense. Because that same argument applies to any library copy of a book.
For what it’s worth, the Internet Archive lets any author who is freaked out about this digital library lending out their books to opt-out of the system. And while I’m sure some authors will argue that opting out shouldn’t be on them, that’s again silly. The system works the way libraries work. Should authors also have to agree before a library can lend their book?
This is all a bunch of nonsense. As we’ve highlighted a few times in recent weeks, the pandemic has really highlighted just how insane copyright has become and how unmoored it is from its original intent of helping to further the spread of knowledge. Instead, it’s used as a giant paywall, to lock up that spread. I know that people have bought into the ever growing idea of permission culture, but take a step back and think about how totally messed up it is that people might possibly have access to the world’s knowledge, while being stuck in their homes during a pandemic… and to have people start yelling “but you don’t have permission to do that.” From an outsider’s perspective, not brought up in the myth of permission-culture, the whole concept would sound ridiculous.
Filed Under: books, controlled digital lending, copyright, culture, digital lending, ebooks, libraries, national emergency library, pandemic, scanning, sharing knowledge
Companies: association of american publishers, authors guild, internet archive