SF’s Internet Archive fights ‘digital book burning’ lawsuit.

Since 1996, San Francisco’s non-profit Internet Archive has been building a digital library of books, videos, and websites that can be accessed free of charge.

Many users may be familiar with the nonprofit’s web archiving wayback engine, but the site also serves as a major resource for accessing books, with Wikipedia linking to digital versions of more than 200,000 books.

The Internet Archive is not able to purchase e-books directly, instead digitizing versions of physical books it owns, creating a resource for everyday readers and academics, as well as for visually impaired and dyslexic readers. However, a lawsuit by publishers Hachette, Penguin Random House, Wiley and HarperCollins is jeopardizing this future access.


The Internet Archive’s distribution method is known as controlled digital lending, where only one copy of the book is available for loan at a time. The Internet Archive began this practice in 2011, and to keep publishers in check, the archive has a moratorium on titles published in the past five years.

“It conforms to basic library practice of what libraries do. We buy books, we store books and we lend books. And we support the publishing industry and authors in this process,” says Internet Archive founder Brewster Kahle.

When the 2020 pandemic hit and libraries closed for safety reasons, the need for e-book access increased, prompting the Internet Archive to change its methods. One hundred libraries signed a statement of support to expand distribution, dubbed the National Emergency Library Act. At this point, the Internet Archive’s loan ratio grew beyond the one-to-one level of controlled digital loans, so they shared more books than they physically owned.

“These aren’t bestsellers. These are books from the library, kind of like homework,” says Kahle. “Publishers are trying to turn back time and say no, you can’t access anything that we don’t license you to read now.”

The program lasted 14 weeks and ended two weeks early in mid-2020 due to the lawsuit by the four publishers mentioned above. If the lawsuit succeeds, the Internet Archive may be forced to destroy a large volume of 20th-century books unavailable elsewhere.

“They are looking for a digital book burning of millions of books,” says Kahle. “During Germany’s heyday in the 20th century, they destroyed 25,000 books. We have a new scale that is being demanded. That’s what they’re looking for, tens of millions of dollars in damages.”

In addition to the books being destroyed, the publishers are seeking $19 million in damages — although they don’t claim the lending process caused any financial damage (the archive’s annual budget is $20 million, which seems high compared to SF’s $170 million). public library). Kahle believes the motivation lies in controlling access to digital materials, whereby publishers can determine who, where, when and which readers can access digital books, and can take them offline at any time.

“It’s ironic that the internet has tried to build something with more democratic access to information and put more power in the hands of the people,” he says. “But what has emerged is this control mechanism that allows publishers to go into your machine — your Kindle, your computer, your library, and make things disappear or change them.”

Last week, the Internet Archive filed summary briefs for a motion to dismiss the case. On July 13, amicus briefs are presented to the court, which the publisher wants to block. The trial continues with court dates in September and October. Kahle doesn’t anticipate a trial, instead anticipating a preliminary verdict in 2023 (which both parties are likely to appeal).

The consequences of the judgment are still a long way off, but Kahle sees an existential threat to free access to information. The decision could have implications for ownership of digital artifacts, which he says are at risk due to licensing issues.

“They want to ensure that every reading event in the online world is a licensed and approved event,” says Kahle. “It’s a bit Orwellian, and they actually do it.”



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