Book publishers go to war against Internet archives

During the COVID-19 lockdown, one silver lining was the proliferation of open-access art and literature online. Despite layoffs and furloughs, the newly unemployed could at least still participate in the latest gallery shows and best-selling novels. This has been particularly helpful as public libraries have strengthened the supply of e-books despite long-term underfunding.

Perhaps the most controversial example is the Internet Archive (IA), which has expanded its open library to lend e-books to anyone with Internet access. The National Emergency Library carried millions of titles purchased and digitized by the Archive. Within weeks of its debut, high-profile authors and publishers rose up against its perceived violation of federal copyright laws. The resulting lawsuit seeks to limit IA’s access to copyrighted titles.

Much of the controversy has taken place on social media, where the authors tagged the emergency library because internet piracy threatens their well-being. Consequently, the Authors Guild and Association of American Publishers (AAP) condemned the Emergency Library as “an excuse to push copyright law further”. The ensuing debate centered on preservation versus profit – should we rethink how art is distributed online, or should we believe that plaintiff publishers — Hachette, HarperCollins, Wiley and Penguin Random House — do they represent our best interests?

One aspect that could enlighten us is the relationship between publishing and libraries. Efforts by librarians to extend online lending to open access for the visually impaired, major publishers have pressured government officials to prioritize intellectual property above all else. Even more recently, they have required libraries to pay a premium above consumer prices for two-year e-book licenses and pressured Congress to kill legislative opposition.

The IA lawsuit could therefore be seen as an attack on free and public art. On top of that, the AAP requested summary judgment, which would effectively settle the case in their favor without a trial. Opponents of the lawsuit see it as a thinly veiled effort to consolidate power and replace ownership with licensing, making e-books a constant source of profit at the expense of libraries. As Professor Aram Sinnreich recently argued, the perceived overreach of AI has become an “opportunity to strike a much bigger blow” against online lending.

AI Policy Advisor Lila Bailey points to the contested titles, many of which are bestsellers by wealthy authors, including Cecilia Ahern. ps i love you (2003), by Malcolm Gladwell Tipping point (2000) and that of Sandra Cisneros The Mango Street House (1983).

Rather than promoting a wider readership, Bailey argues, the AAP reduces accessibility for ordinary people.

“This lawsuit isn’t about authors or creators — it’s about billion-dollar corporate publishers controlling what we read, how we read, and who can read,” Bailey told Hyperallergic. “Publishers are ready to gut library collections for the benefit of shareholders.”

The AAP, meanwhile, portrays AI founder Brewster Kahle as a Silicon Valley millionaire, arguing that big tech trumps the authority of publishers. They contrast AI efforts with what they call “legitimate” lending practices on apps like Libby.

“Authors and other artists have the right to control their work,” AAP General Counsel Terrence Hart told Hyperallergic. “They are also entitled to the fruits of their labor. [IA] has shown complete and utter disregard for these fundamental rights. As the publishers’ lawsuit and summary judgment motion make clear, these ongoing efforts to erase the fundamental rights of authors and other creative artists are well-funded, blatantly illegal, and clearly harmful.

Yet, argues Bailey, publishers’ own collection of consumer data contributes directly to surveillance capitalism, while avoiding accountability for notoriously low wages. Because of this, author Chuck Wendig, who vocally opposed IA in 2020, has since reversed his position.

“Like all libraries, we have a mission, not a business model,” Bailey said. “We don’t make money by lending books. We do not charge for use of our library, sell user data, or advertise on our website. »

Despite decades of Internet piracy debates, online accessibility has increased the potential for less able and affluent demographics to engage with a wide range of movies, albums, and books.. At the same time, publishers and libraries ensure that marginalized authors can freely engage in art and become leaders in their field. Pitting them against each other further divides communities constantly threatened by the rising far right.

Perhaps the crux therefore lies in the current state of consumer publishing. Penguin Random House, the world’s largest paperback publisher, is currently on trial over its merger with Simon & Schuster, with critics alleging it will reduce opportunities for up-and-coming authors. Rather than innovating, business consolidation may end up diminishing the welfare of authors. Curiously, redistributing the millions spent on lawsuits is never a proposed antidote.

Lobbying the federal government against a major repository of cultural histories — especially in a time of book bans, disappearing film archives, and Amazon’s monopoly — sets a dangerous example for the rest of the world of art, which is dominated by exploitative markets. The outcome of this lawsuit could therefore have enormous implications for the future of preservation and accessibility.

Angela C. Hale