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If we lose the Internet Archive, we’re screwed

Internet Archive, visita el historial de web y archivos en la red desde ...
The Internet Archive was founded in 1996. A federal judge recently ruled that its Emergency Library program violated copyright law. CREATIVE COMMONS

If you’ve ever researched anything online, you’ve probably used the Internet Archive (IA). The IA, founded in 1996 by librarian and engineer Brewster Kahle, describes itself as “a non-profit library of millions of free books, movies, software, music, websites, and more.” Their annals include 37 million books, many of which are old tomes that aren’t commercially available. It has classic films, plenty of podcasts and — via its Wayback Machine — just about every deleted webpage ever.

Four corporate publishers have a big problem with this, so they’ve sued the Internet Archive. In Hachette v. Internet Archive, the Hachette Publishing Group, Penguin Random House, HarperCollins and Wiley have alleged that the IA is committing copyright infringement. Now a federal judge has ruled in the publishers’ favor. The IA is appealing the decision.

When Julius Caesar burned the Library of Alexandria, it was hard to imagine a greater destruction of scholarship. Now, 2,000 years later, some petty, litigious schmucks are ready to deal an even bigger blow to the literary canon.

This is fundamentally a strike against taxpayer-funded public services by corporations and private individuals. While Hachette and other publishers ultimately formulated the assault on the IA, novelists were cheering them on. Novelist Chuck Wendig disingenuously criticized the IA’s Emergency Library, saying that “artists get no safety net,” and pointed out unemployment and healthcare costs for writers.

The IA is undoubtedly great for scholarship and literacy. It might be an objective contender for the best site on the World Wide Web. That’s not just my word as an idiosyncratic scholar of genealogy, history and media. Organizations from Boston Public Library and Trent University in Ontario to WorldCat and OCLC collaborate with the Internet Archive to preserve oodles of books. The IA doesn’t even require a library card. If you have Internet access, you can use it.

Let’s examine why exactly the plaintiffs are upset about IA. In 2020, the IA introduced the National Emergency Library, which made copyrighted books available for free during the COVID-19 pandemic. The publishers behind the lawsuit alleged that this entailed copyright infringement. The judge, who was hostile from the beginning, decided to rule in the publishers’ favor. In essence, a federal judge ruled against a program benefiting American taxpayers, in which multiple government-funded public libraries participate.

There’s no evidence the borrowing program scooped up any independent writers’ income. And furthermore, do economically disadvantaged readers not deserve access to books? Shutting down a short-term borrowing program is far more disastrous to the working class than access to books can ever be.

Not only is this concern-trolling disingenuous, but the ruling itself, grounded in copyright, is a smack against fair use. It brings us one step closer to perpetual copyright – the idea that individuals should own their work forever. The IA argued that their project was covered by fair use, as the Emergency Library provides texts for educational and scholarly purposes.

Even writers objected to the court’s ruling. More than 300 writers signed a petition against the lawsuit, including Neil Gaiman, Naomi Klein and – get this – Chuck Wendig. Writers lost nothing from the Emergency Library and gained everything from it. For my part, I’ve acquired research materials from the IA that I wouldn’t have found anywhere else. The archive has scads of primary sources which otherwise might require researchers to fly across the country for access.

The Internet Archive is good for literacy. It’s good for the public. It’s good for readers, writers and anyone who’s invested in literary education. It does not harm authors, whose income is no more dented by it than any library programs. Even the Emergency Library’s initial opponents have conceded this. The federal court’s decision is a victory for corporations and a disaster for everyone else. If this decision isn’t reversed, human beings will lose more knowledge than the Library of Alexandra ever contained. If IA’s appeal fails, it will be a tragedy of historical proportions.

Correction, 4/8/23: A previous version of this article misspelled “Hachette.”

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  • L

    Lorenzo BertolinoApr 11, 2023 at 2:41 am

    While I absolutely agree with the importance of libraries and access to books for everyone, I don’t agree with your reading of the meaning of ‘fair use’. It has nothing to do with perpetual copyright, just with how the copyrighted material has been used. Fair use requires a transformation of the art involved, not just copying it and putting it online.
    I wholeheartedly support legislation that exempts online libraries from copyright claims. However, this is not what the law says. IA doesn’t have a leg to stand on at the moment.
    They should have pushed for legislation in congress instead of fighting a losing battle.

  • J

    JenotApr 8, 2023 at 2:07 pm

    Hatchette or Hachette ?? Please read again before publishing

  • J

    JAApr 7, 2023 at 1:40 pm

    It’s astonishing to me how many IA articles rapidly devolve into, “Can you believe this judge is enforcing the laws that IA obviously broke?”

    I agree that IA is an incredibly important site doing work and preserving historical data that would otherwise be lost.

    It’s a pity they put a gun in their mouth and pulled the trigger.

    Hopefully either they, or some other organization doing the same work, will find a way to survive the catastrophically bad decision making of their leadership.

  • N

    Noba DeeApr 6, 2023 at 11:12 pm

    What would it take to simply, some night (or nights), to download the IA to somewhere else, and keep the courts tied up, indefinitely, chasing the books around the Internet forever?

  • O

    OmApr 6, 2023 at 7:37 pm

    Thanks for raising awareness for this issue. Is there anything we can do to support the IA in this matter?

  • X

    Xiangi DinklebergApr 6, 2023 at 5:51 pm

    I think it’s rather difficult to gauge the impact as a reader with no understanding of the industry. Some of these authors’ Twitter threads are rather persuasive, but they seem to really harp on piracy as a detriment to their income. From what I’ve gathered in my early decades of unfiltered piracy throughout high school and college for anything from movies, games, to music, pirates are often isolated from users that purchase. If the argument hinges on piracy reducing sales, then we’ve really taken a step backwards in this conversation; I thought it was established that piracy has very little effect on sales. I’d like to hear more about how some of these new and marginalized authors made a living before this emergency library system, were they really generating much more profits than now? It would really help to have some numbers, or at least something addressing a tangible change in these authors’ income due to IA’s lending policies.

  • Q

    qaApr 6, 2023 at 12:44 pm

    How can we help? Is it possible to dissolve IA to a p2p network?