A group of major book publishers – Penguin Random House, HarperCollins, Hachette Book Group and John Wiley & Sons – have sued the digital library and non-profit organisation Internet Archive after it shared free electronic copies of more than 1.3 million books online.
Founded in the US in 2006, Internet Archive scans physical copies of books and allows users to access them, though each title is only available to one borrower at a time for 14 days because of its established system of “controlled digital lending” (CDL).
In March, however, Internet Archive lifted this restriction as a response to the coronavirus pandemic, stating that it was creating a “National Emergency Library to serve the nation’s displaced learners”.
On Monday, June 1, the publishing houses filed a copyright infringement lawsuit in a federal court in Manhattan, New York. In a statement from the Association of American Publishers, the plaintiffs stated that Internet Archive’s actions “appear to make it one of the largest known book pirate sites in the world”.
The statement continued that through its operations, Internet Archive is “robbing authors and publishers of their ability to control the manner and timing of communicating their works to the public”.
Brewster Kahle, founder of Internet Archive, defended the digital library. In a statement to the New York Times, he said: "Publishers suing libraries for lending books, in this case, protected digitised versions, and while schools and libraries are closed, is not in anyone's interest."
He added that the decision to change its lending restrictions was to help remote learning in schools and that authors had the option of opting out of the website.
However, unlike traditional libraries, which pay licensing fees to publishers and agree on timelines for their availability, Internet Archive copies in-copyright books cover-to-cover. The Association of American Publishers added that it solicited the copying of books in the “truckloads” and “denigrates [the book's] commercial value.
A number of authors in the lawsuit include Malcolm Gladwell, John Grisham and Elizabeth Gilbert. The Authors Guild, an organisation that advocates authors’ rights, has also spoken out against Internet Archive. In March, the Authors Guild released a statement saying it was “appalled” by the digital library’s actions.
“[Internet Archive] 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,” it said, adding that the crisis was impacting authors due to cancelled book tours and speaking engagements, as well as a loss of freelance work.