The Emergence of Copyright Looting

We’ve all seen the images on TV and the internet. There’s some natural disaster or protest, or some sports team wins a long-awaited championship. Most people do the right thing – they help one another out, they picket peacefully or they attend the parade to cheer on their team. But there are always a few miscreants who get carried away with the pandemonium and use it as an opportunity to benefit themselves at the expense of others. These are the people you see on TV throwing bricks through store windows to steal TV sets, food or some other commodity.

As we all know, we are in the midst of our own global crisis as a result of COVID-19, one that has spread turmoil throughout the world. Most people have rallied to support one another. When you access your favorite social media platform, you will see messages about what you can do to help out your local small businesses by, for example, buying gift cards, ordering food for pickup or delivery or shopping local businesses online.

The creative community is no different. Authors, photographers, artists, songwriters, musicians and many others create the wonderfully entertaining and/or informative copyrighted works that are helping us cope with the chaos that is taking place outside the confines of our homes. These creators are also among the hardest hit economically. So it is inspiring to see many groups and individuals coming to the aid of creators and small businesses during this challenging time. Here are just a few examples of organizations stepping in to help the creative community:

Unfortunately, while most people are doing the right thing and rallying in support of one another, there are also those who are taking advantage of the mayhem to throw bricks through store windows and make things much worse for those that need our help. There is no better example of this than Brewster Kahle and the Internet Archive. Kahle runs the Internet Archive, which was founded in 1996 to provide “Universal Access to All Knowledge” by archiving websites and scanning other copyrighted materials that are then made available online. On March 24, he dramatically expanded their reach when he announced that the Internet Archive was unilaterally granting itself “emergency” powers to allow unlimiting “borrowing” of any ebook from its corpus of over 1.4 million copyrighted titles without any restrictions on how many people can simultaneouslyÊ”borrow” them.

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. His altruistic assertions should viewed skeptically. In the 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 this is really a vehicle to accomplish a long-held goal.

As if these actions weren’t bad enough, what makes them even more outrageous is that Brewster Kahle is a multi-millionaire (who made his fortune during the dotcom boom when he sold two companies for millions to AOL and Amazon). Unlike Kahle, over the past two weeks we have witnessed numerous wealthy people reaching into their own pockets to contribute to those in need, such as Tim Cook, Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg, who have pledged to provide 18 million masks to fight COVID-19; Drew Brees, who donated $5 million to help Louisiana; and Rihanna, whose foundation donated $5 million to fund relief efforts and protective gear for hospital workers and first responders. Smaller gestures are also heartening like the Clintons sending 400 pizzas to New York hospitals. So many others who are not as well off have also contributed mightily to those in need.

Kahle, on the other hand, has chosen not to take money out of his own pocket but rather to take money out of the pockets of those who need it the most – American authors. Under normal circumstances his actions would be reprehensible, but given the current situation and Kahle’s enormous wealth, his actions are particularly vile.

There may be some who think Kahle’s actions are warranted because, similar to Robin Hood, he is providing free books to the masses. But Kahle is no Robin Hood. Robin Hood stole from the rich to give to the poor. What Kahle is doing is quite different. Instead of paying for the books and giving them to those in need, he is stealing them and giving them away without restriction. It bears repeating that Kahle is someone who can easily afford to pay for the books instead of stealing them. You don’t see Drew Brees asking fans to contribute to his $5 million donation or the Clintons stealing pizzas to give to hospitals. Ultimately, it should be up to copyright owners to determine if they are in the financial position to donate their works. Donations are great, but we wouldn’t think that a local grocer should be forced to give away food at the expense of their own income and family.

It’s not like authors and the book industry are not doing their part to make these books more widely and freely available in these troubling times. Just check out what various book publishers are doing and what Audible and Scribd are doing. Check out the numerous authors and others who are trying to help out by offering online courses and holding book readings, virtual book tours and so much more. And that is just the tip of the iceberg. There are numerous legal options available for people who can’t afford the books. And for those who can afford them, there is no better time to buy a book than now to support your favorite authors, or better yet support all authors by donating to the Authors Guild or by contributing to the authors directly.

At a time like this, we all need to rally together to support one another, and to support our creative community. The Coronavirus has given authors enough to deal with – let’s not add copyright looting to the list of challenges.

get blog updates