You Can’t Buy These Books


In a remarkable brief filed on July 7 in their ongoing lawsuit, four titans of corporate publishing (Hachette, Penguin Random House, HarperCollins, and Wiley) accused the Internet Archive of stealing, “mass-scale copyright infringement,” and “[distributing] full-text digital bootlegs for free.” Those are pretty wild allegations—especially considering that the Internet Archive’s Open Library operates on the traditional terms that libraries in this country have abided by for centuries. The Open Library loans books, which it owns, to one patron at a time, for a fixed period—just like any other library. Like any public library, the Open Library doesn’t charge money for this service. The main difference is that the Open Library loans e-books online. Each e-book is scanned from a paper copy, and the paper copy is stored away and doesn’t circulate; this practice is called Controlled Digital Lending, or CDL.

One book, lawfully bought or acquired, one scan, one patron at a time—no money changes hands. And yet the publishers’ brief does its best to cast the librarians of the Internet Archive as a gang of thieves and pirates.

In reality, the publishers’ attack on the Internet Archive is a Trojan horse for a very different, and radical, idea: that e-books are fundamentally—legally—different from paper books. If accepted, their argument would remove e-books from the many statutory protections upon which library rights positively depend. That outcome would leave libraries vulnerable to the draconian licensing deals under which e-books are increasingly offered. And libraries would have to pay and pay, in the absence of digital books that can be permanently bought and owned outright.

The publishers’ true goal appears right on page 6:

Controlled digital lending, as practiced by Internet Archive, collapses the boundaries between physical books and ebooks. CDL’s basic tenet is that a non-profit entity that owns a physical book can scan that book and distribute the resulting ebook as a proxy for the physical copy. But this ignores that ebooks are a fundamentally different product from physical books.

They may be a different product, but e-books are still books.

The real stakes in this lawsuit concern not digital piracy but the preservation of library rights; the real renegades here are not the librarians of the Internet Archive but the publishers, who are looking to take a machete to the Copyright Act in order to make their e-book products rental-only, so that libraries—along with you and me and everyone else—will have to keep paying for them forever. Libraries will no longer be independent entities, free to make their own decisions about what to lend; they’ll be limited to whatever publishers want to offer—or not offer.

“We need strong and independent publishers,” says Internet Archive founder Brewster Kahle, “and we need strong and independent libraries.”

Because the statutory protections for libraries were written decades ago, when technical constraints on copying and distribution were entirely different from what they are now, preserving traditional library rights has presented challenges in the digital age. These issues were always going to be revisited in the courts, one way or another. In fact, in 2011, in her seminal paper on the legal framework that came to be known as CDL, legal scholar Michelle Wu foresaw this very lawsuit:


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