Authors Back Internet Archive In Battle With Publishers Over Digital Lending

More than 300 authors are supporting the Internet Archive in its battle with large publishers over loans of digitized books.

“We fear a future where libraries are reduced to a sort of Netflix or Spotify for books,” Neil Gaiman, Lemony Snicket, Cory Doctorow and hundreds of others say in an open letter released Thursday. “Publishers must balance profits for the most prominent authors and shareholders with the right of the public to free, unsurveilled access to knowledge and information -- as well as the right of emerging authors to be collected, preserved, and discovered.”

Gaiman and the others say they want publishers to “end lawsuits aimed at intimidating libraries and diminishing their role in society.”

“We are all on the same side,” they write. “While undermining libraries may financially benefit the wealthiest and most privileged authors and corporations in the short term, this behavior is utterly opposed to the interests of authors as a whole.”

The new letter comes as U.S. District Court Judge John G. Koeltl in New York is preparing to decide whether the Internet Archive's 11-year-old digital lending program violates copyright law.

The legal battle dates to June of 2020, when the nonprofit Internet Archive was sued by four major publishers -- Hachette Book Group, HarperCollins Publishers, John Wiley & Sons, and Penguin Random House -- for lending digital books.

The Internet Archive's longstanding “controlled lending program,” dating to 2011, involves loaning one digital copy at a time for each hard copy of a book that's been scanned and digitized. During the first months of the COVID-19 pandemic, the nonprofit also operated an “emergency” program, which offered downloads of the same scanned hard copy to multiple users at once. That program ceased in June of 2020.

The publishers sued over both initiatives, arguing that the Internet Archive violates copyright law by distributing copies of digital book files.

The publishers list more than 100 books that have allegedly been infringed -- including two by Snicket (“Who Could That Be at This Hour?” and “When Did You See Her Last?”), who objects to the lawsuit.

For its part, the Internet Archive says both programs -- the original lending library and emergency initiative -- are protected by fair use.

Both sides have drawn support from outside observers. The Authors Guild, which supports the publishers, compares the Internet Archive to the original Napster, arguing in a friend-of-the-court brief that the nonprofit “freerides on the authors’ literary contributions,” while also competing with publishers by distributing unlicensed e-books.

Others, including the library organizations Library Futures Institute and ReadersFirst, argue that the Internet Archive's program may offer better privacy protections than commercial licensing schemes.

“Controlled digital lending ... enables libraries to lend books on their own terms, allowing them to avoid the problematic privacy-implicating data collection practices of publishers and eBook aggregator services that may otherwise be unavoidable with licensed eBooks,” those organizations write in a friend-of-the-court brief.

The Internet Archive and publishers are expected to file a new round of legal papers with Koeltl on October 7.

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