Elizabeth: A Pirate’s Life?

I had no idea what today’s post would be when I woke up this morning; thankfully, the internet had my back.  While eating my morning pancakes, I read this post by writer Chuck Wendig and then saw this link, courtesy of a Facebook post by author Loretta Chase.  Both were in reference to the Internet Archive’s recent launch of a “National Emergency Library”, making 1.4 million books available free online with no waiting to address “our unprecedented global and immediate need for access to reading and research material” during the Covid-19 outbreak.

Sounds good, right?

If you are unfamiliar with the Internet Archive, here is a brief explanation from their website:

The Internet Archive, a 501(c)(3) non-profit, is building a digital library of Internet sites and other cultural artifacts in digital form. Like a paper library, we provide free access to researchers, historians, scholars, the print disabled, and the general public. Our mission is to provide Universal Access to All Knowledge.  Because we are a library, we pay special attention to books. Not everyone has access to a public or academic library with a good collection, so to provide universal access we need to provide digital versions of books. We began a program to digitize books in 2005 and today we scan 1,000 books per day in 28 locations around the world. Books published prior to 1923 are available for download, and hundreds of thousands of modern books can be borrowed through our Open Library site. Some of our digitized books are only available to the print disabled.

Making books available to people who don’t have access seems like a great thing, but that line I highlighted above (“we scan 1,000 books per day”) is where things get tricky and where authors are having heartburn, specifically authors, whose books under copyright have been scanned and are now being made freely available to anyone.

When asked if what they were doing was stealing from authors and publishers, the Internet Archive defended their actions stating:

“Libraries buy books or get them from donations and lend them out. This has been true and legal for centuries. The idea that this is stealing fundamentally misunderstands the role of libraries in the information ecosystem.”

I feel like that statement fundamentally misunderstands how libraries and lending work, as well as the mechanisms in place to make sure authors are paid for their books.

The common theme I’ve seen in author responses to this issue is that the Internet Archive is “hitting authors when they’re down” by denying them sales of books that are still in copyright.

“The problem with bypassing copyright and disrupting the chain of royalties that lead from books to authors is that it endangers our ability to continue to produce art — and though we are all in the midst of a crisis, most artists are on the razor’s edge in terms of being able to support themselves.” ~ Chuck Wendig

According to an article in The Guardian the Authors Guild in the US

[C]alled the decision appalling and said it was “shocked that the IA 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”.  Adding that the IA has “no rights whatsoever to these books” and accusing it of “using a global crisis to advance a copyright ideology that violates current federal law and hurts most authors.”

Authors Guild president Douglas Preston put it more bluntly saying,

“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.”

For books that are out-of-copyright, the Internet Archive’s wide-open access is one thing, but how would you feel as an author if you found someone had taken your book, scanned it without asking your permission, and was now making it freely available for anyone to read?

Kind of sounds like piracy.

I know I wouldn’t be too happy, especially if I was spending time and money to market the book or counting on steady royalty checks to help keep afloat.

So what do you think?  Is the Internet Archive providing a valuable service or have they overstepped?

4 thoughts on “Elizabeth: A Pirate’s Life?

    • I agree. Scanning and giving away books is intellectual property theft. I’m a little confused about this description, though: what’s the difference between books published before 1923 (when current copyright expires) that are “available for download” compared to “modern books [that] can be borrowed”? It seems like the Internet Archive is making some kind of distinction there, not that I see it.

      If a person wants to read a book for free, there’s Project Gutenberg (for copyright free publications). Not to mention, many libraries still have their digital downloads operations going. And I haven’t done it, but I believe there’s a “share” or “lend” option when a person buys a book from Amazon. If you buy something, you can lend it, right? Something like that. So email your friends, find out what they’ve got. 🙂

      • Hi Kay. It seems like their distinction is that the “out of copyright” books can be downloaded and kept forever, while the other books can only be “checked out” for a period of time and then they are returned, like a library.

        I love your idea of reaching out to fiends to see who has what and whether the books can be Amazon-lended (not all books can).

        On the Internet Archive site, in their FAQ section, they cite their legal basis for scanning books, but the regulation refers scanning books (that are not already available in electronic form) for the blind, not for everyone.

        • Interesting. I wonder how the book is returned, and how many downloads they’re getting. Maybe the EFF or someone will look into this, now that we have all this time on our hands. 🙂

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