Internet Archive’s “Emergency Library”: A Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing

The old saying that “life is unpredictable” is certainly an understatement these days, with COVID-19 forcing the world to face the biggest global pandemic that any of us have experienced in our lifetime. From worrying about the health of family and friends, to working from home while social distancing, to wearing face masks and gloves when venturing outside, it’s an experience most of us won’t soon forget.

One of the things I will remember most vividly about this uncertain time is the fact that so many people have come to the aid of complete strangers. No one was forced to help out, but so many people have been (and continue to be) there for those in need. For starters, health care workers and first responders have given of themselves in ways that can never be repaid. Grocery store and pharmacy employees continue to do their jobs despite the inherent risks they face. Delivery drivers are dropping off packages and take-out meals at our doorsteps on a daily basis. It’s hard to find words that will ever adequately describe the sacrifices these people, and so many others, are making every day for the sake of their fellow men and women. And then there are the artists who, despite being hit incredibly hard from a financial perspective by the pandemic, continue to write, paint, photograph, sing, hold free concerts and online exhibits, and make our lives all the richer with each new creation they contribute – especially during a challenging period like the one we are living in today. If there is a silver lining to this unprecedented situation, it’s all of the people who are giving of themselves and not expecting anything in return.

Unfortunately, though, there is a flip side. Despite the many unsung heroes helping to remind us of the good in the world, there are also those who are trying to manipulate others in order to achieve their own gain. And by doing so, they are taking advantage of people who can least afford to be made more vulnerable. One such instance of questionable behavior involves an organization called the Internet Archive, founded and led by multimillionaire Brewster Kahle. Around the time that COVID-19 began making news in late March, the Internet Archive launched a service that it calls the “National Emergency Library.”

When first announced, initial media reports lauded this initiative as a means of supporting the public during the pandemic – a way to offer everyone more books to read at no cost. That was what everyone thought before taking a closer look at the initiative. So, what was really going on? Under the guise of helping the public, the Internet Archive announced that it would unilaterally grant itself “emergency powers” to allow readers to “borrow” any e-book from its collection of more than 1.4 million titles without any restrictions on how many people can simultaneously borrow them at one time. (More information about the Internet Archive’s policies can be found here.)

What makes the Internet Archive’s actions even more egregious is that its “emergency powers” are an extension of its equally questionable “controlled digital lending” program that started in 2011, in which the Internet Archive, without authority, began digitizing out-of-print books – ones that are still protected by copyright – and making them into e-books.

As noted by Neil Turkewitz in an April 14 blog post about these efforts, “A few weeks ago… Brewster Kahle and the folks at the Internet Archive decided to take it upon themselves to fill what they saw as a void in the operation of public libraries as a result of COVID-19, and relaxed the rules of their already controversial ‘library’ through which they distributed books without the permission of the authors or publishers thereof. Put aside for a moment the fact that in so doing, they were seeking to fulfill a long-held ambition to make information free to the world—an ambition recited in Kahle’s original post on the subject. As such, it wasn’t really a response to COVID-19, it was a response to the opportunity afforded by the pandemic and their calculated guess that it was an opportune moment in which affected authors would be unlikely to object.”

In a nutshell, the Internet Archive and Kahle are fulfilling their long-held mission to make works available online for free regardless of who they hurt by doing so. And who exactly is being hurt by sharing copyrighted books for free? The countless authors who barely make ends meet during non-crisis times due to the modest incomes that most of them earn. In fact, most authors were earning a mean income of $20,300 from their writing prior to all of the economic upheaval that occurred due to COVID-19. So, it’s no surprise that Kahle and the Internet Archive’s efforts are financially devastating for authors trying to make a living from their work.

In a recent statement, the Authors Guild wrote, “[Internet Archive] is using a global crisis to advance a copyright ideology that violates current federal law and hurts most authors. It has misrepresented the nature and legality of the project through a deceptive publicity campaign.” And in a statement by Association of American Publishers CEO Maria Pallante, she noted, “We are stunned by the Internet Archive’s aggressive, unlawful, and opportunistic attack on the rights of authors and publishers in the midst of the Coronavirus pandemic.”

According to published author and Authors Guild president Doug Preston in his recent New York Times op-Ed, “The National Emergency Library harms authors by depriving them of income at a time when they can least afford it. It deprives bookstores of desperately needed sales. It hurts real libraries, most of which are still operating legitimate e-lending programs and need patrons now more than ever. It undermines the entire publishing ecosystem and all those who depend on it, from publicists and book designers to editors and agents.”

As noted by Copyright Alliance CEO Keith Kupferschmid in a recent post, “At a time when authors, like many others, are struggling to pay the rent and put food on the table, Kahle and the Internet Archive, are throwing bricks through their windows and looting their houses. [Kahle’s] altruistic assertions should be viewed skeptically. In a blog announcing the initiative, Kahle states, ‘This was our dream for the original Internet coming to life: The Library at everyone’s fingertips.’ In his enthusiasm, he can’t help but admit that [the Emergency Library] is really a vehicle to accomplish a long-held goal.”

As someone who admires and appreciates the work that artists, writers, authors, musicians, designers, photographers, and so many more contribute to enrich our daily lives, it’s beyond comprehension that an organization like Internet Archive, led by Kahle, can portray itself as doing good during one of the toughest times most people will ever face. Sadly, when most of us reflect back on what occurred during the COVID-19 crisis, in addition to remembering all the acts of kindness, heroism and good deeds that made life so much better for so many, we’ll also remember those – like Brewster Kahle and the Internet Archive – who used the pandemic as a thinly-veiled attempt to push forward their own agenda instead of truly helping during an extraordinary time of need.

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