Ex libris

So as previously discussed here three years ago and two years ago, on March 24 the US District Court for the Southern District of New York found that the Internet Archive’s controlled digital lending fails copyright law. Half of my social media feed on this subject filled immediately with people warning that publishers want to kill libraries and this judgment is a dangerous step limiting access to information; the other half is going “They’re stealing from authors. Copyright!” Both of these things can be true. And incomplete.

To recap: in 2006 the Internet Archive set up the Open Library to offer access to digitized books under “controlled digital lending”. The system allows each book to be “out” on “loan” to only one person at a time, with waiting lists for popular titles. In a white paper, lawyers David R. Hansen and Kyle K. Courtney call this “format shifting” and say that because the system replicates library lending it is fair use. Also germane: the Archive points to a 2007 California decision that it is in fact a library. Other countries may beg to differ.

When public libraries closed at the beginning of the covid19 pandemic, the Internet Archive announced the National Emergency Library, which suspended the one-copy-at-a-time rule and scrubbed the waiting lists so anyone could borrow any book at any time. The resulting publicity was the first time many people had heard of the Open Library, although authors had already complained. Hachette Book Group, Penguin Random House, HarperCollins, and Wiley filed suit. Shortly afterwards, the Archive shut down the National Emergency Library. The Open Library continues, and the Archive will appeal the judge’s ruling.

On the they’re-killing-the-libraries side: Mike Masnick and Fight for the Future. At Walled Culture, Glyn Moody argues that sharing ebooks helps sell paid copies. Many authors agree with the publishers that their living is at risk; a group of exceptions including Neil Gaiman, Naomi Klein, and Cory Doctorow, have published an open letter defending the Archive.

At Vice, Claire Woodstock lays out some of the economics of library ebook licenses, which eat up budgets but leave libraries vulnerable and empty-shelved when a service is withdrawn. She also notes that the Internet Archive digitizes physical copies it buys or receives as donations, and does not pay for ebook licenses.

Brief digression back to 1996, when Pamela Samuelson warned of the coming copyright battles in Wired. Many of its key points have since either been enshrined into law, such as circumventing copy protection; others, such as requiring Internet Service Providers to prevent users from uploading copyrighted material, remain in play today. Number three on her copyright maximalists’ wish listeliminating first-sale rights for digitally transmitted documents. This is the doctrine that enables libraries to lend books.

It is therefore entirely believable that commercial publishers believe that every library loan is a missed sale. Outside the US, many countries have a public lending right that pays royalties on loans for that sort of reason. The Internet Archive doesn’t pay those, either.

It surely isn’t facing the headwinds public libraries are. In the UK, years of austerity have shrunk library budgets and therefore their numbers and opening hours. In the US, libraries are fighting against book bans; in Missouri, the Republican-controlled legislature voted to defund the state’s libraries entirely, apparently in retaliation.

At her blog, librarian and consultant Karen Coyle, who has thought for decades about the future of libraries, takes three postings to consider the case. First, she offers a backgrounder, agreeing that the Archive’s losing on appeal could bring consequences for other libraries’ digital lending. In the second, she teases out the differences between academic/research libraries and public libraries and between research and reading. While journals and research materials are generally available in electronic format, centuries of books are not, and scanned books (like those the Archive offers) are a poor reading experience compared to modern publisher-created ebooks. These distinctions are crucial to her third posting, which traces the origins of controlled digital lending.

As initially conceived by Michelle M. Wu in a 2011 paper for Law Library Journal, controlled digital lending was a suggestion that law libraries could, either singly or in groups, buy a hard copy for their holdings and then circulate a digitized copy, similar to an Inter-Library Loan. Law libraries serve limited communities, and their comparatively modest holdings have a known but limited market.

By contrast, the Archive gives global access to millions of books it has scanned. In court, it argued that the availability of popular commercial books on its site has not harmed publishers’ revenues. The judge disagreed: the “alleged benefits” of access could not outweigh the market harm to the four publishers who brought the suit. This view entirely devalues the societal role libraries play, and Coyle, like many others, is dismayed that the judge saw the case purely in terms of its effect on the commercial market.

The question I’m left with is this: is the Open Library a library or a disruptor? If these were businesses, it would obviously be the latter: it avoids many of the costs of local competitors, and asks forgiveness not permission. As things are, it seems to be both: it’s a library for users, but a disruptor to some publishers, some authors, and potentially the world’s libraries. The judge’s ruling captures none of this nuance.

Illustrations: 19th century rendering of the Great Library of Alexandria (via Wikimedia).

Wendy M. Grossman is the 2013 winner of the Enigma Award. Her Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of earlier columns in this series. Follow on Twitter.