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Is the Internet Archive’s Open Library a vital channel that democratizes information access, or is it a large-scale digital piracy operation? That’s the question raised in a lawsuit filed by four major book publishers against the nonprofit information vault’s Open Library online-lending project.
The Internet Archive perhaps is best known for its Wayback Machine®, which allows users to go back in time and access a 10-petabyte collection of internet history—that’s over 330 billion web pages. For lawyers, the website and its records have been a unique source of information in some legal disputes, as they enable users to see web history records dating back to 1996.
The Internet Archive’s Open Library project scans libraries’ collections and allows users to digitally borrow books under a system of Controlled Digital Lending (CDL). This limits access to the actual number of physical books and puts users on a waiting list if a book is already checked out.
In March 2020, the Internet Archive temporarily eased Open Library’s lending restrictions amid the COVID-19 pandemic as part of its National Emergency Library project. The change enabled multiple people to check out the same digital copy of a book at the same time in light of physical libraries being shuttered. In response, Hachette, Penguin Random House, Wiley and HarperCollins® filed a copyright infringement lawsuit in New York federal court on June 1 against the Internet Archive, calling both the regular Open Library and the National Emergency Library “digital piracy on an industrial scale.” The Internet Archive ended the Emergency Library project on June 16, but the lawsuit remains in place.
The publishers allege that the Internet Archive’s business model involves freely disseminating scanned copies of physical books through its website, which is “parasitic and illegal” and exploits the work of authors and publishers without paying any of the costs associated with creating the books. It asks the court for damages for publishers’ copyrighted works, and both a preliminary and permanent injunction of the Internet Archive’s digitization and lending processes. It also asks the court to order all unlawful copies of derivative works to be destroyed—more than 1.5 million volumes.
In its response to the lawsuit, the Internet Archive denies it has violated copyright laws and says its CDL program is fundamentally the same as traditional library lending and is protected by U.S. copyright law’s fair use doctrine because it serves the public interest in preservation, access and research. And in a blog post, Internet Archive founder Brewster Kahle called on the publishers to drop the lawsuit and to work with his group to “help solve the pressing challenges to access to knowledge during this pandemic.”
While the lawsuit only focuses on the Internet Archive’s Open Library and doesn’t take issue with the Wayback Machine or digitization of materials in the public domain, the fear is that a victory for the publishers could financially harm the Internet Archive, and thus destroy the Wayback Machine.
No other organization provides a backup to this content, so if it’s wiped out, it’s permanently gone. Even if the Open Library is forced to close, information-access supporters (including many lawyers) hope that the organization can continue the Wayback Machine and other preservation efforts that publishers aren’t targeting in the lawsuit.