One silver lining during the COVID-19 lockdown was the proliferation of open access art and literature online. Despite the layoffs and furloughs, the newly unemployed workers could at least still catch up on the latest gallery exhibitions and best-selling novels. This has been especially helpful as public libraries have strengthened their e-book offerings despite long-term funding cuts.
Perhaps the most controversial example has been the Internet Archive (IA), which has expanded its Open Library to make e-books available to anyone with Internet access. The National Emergency Library carried millions of books purchased and scanned by the Archives. In the weeks following its debut, high-profile authors and publishers argued that it violated federal copyright laws. The resulting lawsuit seeks to limit IA’s access to copyrighted titles.
Much of the controversy has played out on social media where the authors are labeled Emergency Library as internet piracy threatens their well-being. As a result, the Authors Guild and the Association of American Publishers (AAP) denounced the Emergency Library as “an excuse to stretch copyright law even further.” The debate that followed was about profit versus protection – should we rethink how art is distributed online, or should publishers claim — Hachette, HarperCollins, Wiley and Penguin Random House — represent our best interests?
One aspect that could shed some light is the relationship between publishing and libraries. From librarians’ efforts to expand online lending open access for the visually impaired, major publishers have lobbied government officials to prioritize intellectual property. Even recently, they required libraries to pay premiums above consumer prices for two-year licenses for e-books and lobbied Congress to kill any legislative opposition.
Therefore, the IA claim can be seen as an attack on free and public art. Moreover, AAP applied for a summary judgment which would dispose of the case in its favor without a trial. Opponents of the lawsuit see it as a thinly veiled attempt to consolidate power and replace ownership with licensing, making e-books a permanent source of revenue at the expense of libraries. As Professor Aram Sinnreich recently argued, IA’s perceived overreach has become an “opportunity to strike a bigger blow” against online lending.
IA Policy Advisor Lila Bailey points to titles in the competition, many of which are bestsellers by high-net-worth authors, including Cecilia Ahern. PS, I love you (2003), Malcolm Gladwell’s The turning point (2000) and Sandra Cisneros House on Mango Street (1983).
Instead of encouraging a wider readership, Bailey argues, AAP reduces accessibility to everyday people.
“This lawsuit isn’t about authors or creators — it’s about billion-dollar corporate publishers who control what we read, how we read it, and who can read it,” Bailey told Hyperallergic. “Publishers Willing to Dump Library Collections for Shareholder Profits.”
AAP, meanwhile, portrays IA founder Brewster Kahle as a Silicon Valley millionaire, pushing big tech’s authority over publishers. They compare IA’s efforts to what they call “legitimate” lending practices in apps like Libby.
“Authors and other artists have the right to control their work,” AAP General Counsel Terrence Hart told Hyperallergic. “They also have the right to receive the fruits of their labor. [IA] showed complete and utter disregard for those fundamental rights. As the publishers’ lawsuit and motion for summary judgment make clear, these ongoing efforts to abrogate the fundamental rights of authors and other creative artists are well-funded, patently illegal, and patently harmful.”
However, Bailey argues that publishers’ collection of consumer data directly contributes to surveillance capitalism while avoiding responsibility for low wages. For this reason, author Chuck Wendig, who publicly opposed IA in 2020, has since changed his position.
“Like all libraries, we have a mission, not a business model,” Bailey said. “We don’t make money from lending books. We do not charge for using our library, selling user data, or advertising on our website.”
Despite decades of debate over Internet piracy, online accessibility has increased the potential for underserved and affluent demographics to connect with a wide variety of movies, albums, and books.. At the same time, publishers and libraries ensure that isolated authors are free to practice art and become pioneers in their fields. Pitting one against the other further divides communities that are constantly threatened by the rising far right.
Perhaps the main issue is the current state of mainstream publishing. Penguin Random House, the world’s largest paper publisher, is currently under trial for its merger with Simon & Schuster, which critics argue will reduce opportunities for up-and-coming authors. Instead of innovating, corporate consolidation can undermine authors’ well-being. Interestingly, redistribution of the millions spent on litigation is never the proposed antidote.
Especially at a time of book bans, disappearing film archives, and Amazon’s monopoly, lobbying the federal government against the main repository of cultural history sets a dangerous precedent for the rest of the art world dominated by exploitative markets. Therefore, the outcome of this lawsuit could have a major impact on the future of preservation and accessibility.