April 2, 2020

“Internet Archive” posts free books; accusations roil digisphere


The nonprofit “Internet Archive” has recently established a “National Emergency Library” that makes 1.4 million e-books, many of which are under copyright and still in print, available to the public for free.

Naturally authors and publishers across the nation protested what they perceive to be pirating of their books. Authors Guild president Douglas Preston said: “It’s as though they looted a bookstore and started handing away books to passersby. They are hurting authors and bookstores at a time when they can least bear it.”

The Internet Archive has released a statement defending their practice here. We’re not copyright lawyers, but this looks like mighty thin soup to us. The gist of the argument seems to be that the lending falls under the fair use proviso of copyright law.

Fair use, though, was intended to make citing a source in a limited fashion possible for scholarly reasons—it’s what allows you to quote a couple of lines of Yeats in your term paper about high-modernist prosody for English 303. Claiming that fair use protects the wholesale distribution of entire texts is … well, let’s just say that it make us wonder if the whole world has gone crazy!

The Internet Archive spokespersons say that this new level of access is justified because of “unprecedented global and immediate need,” presumably a reference to the novel coronavirus and the spread of COVID-19. Has it occurred to them that the “unprecedented” situation has adversely affected the people who actually write and publish books, and that this could just as easily be an argument for not making copyrighted titles freely available, thus reducing income streams for struggling authors (and publishers!) even further?

We hate to come across as paranoid, but we have to agree with the Authors Guild that “using a global crisis to advance a copyright ideology that violates current federal law and hurts most authors” is opportunistic at best. (There are other words that come to mind!) Disaster capitalism takes many forms!

Wash your hands!



Michael Lindgren is the Managing Editor at Melville House.