Publisher Lawsuit Against Internet Archive Puts Future of Book Ownership In Question

A federal lawsuit against the National Emergency Library is raising questions about digital ownership in 2020 as major publishers seek to redefine what it means to own that book you’re reading.

This past March, the Internet Archive created the National Emergency Library in response to the global COVID-19 pandemic. 

The lockdown had left many students around the globe without access to libraries. A month in, UNESCO reported that 90% of the world’s students were being affected by the global pandemic.

“Publishers are not archivists and have no interest in preserving the culture for future generations.” — Maria Bustillos, journalist

The newly-launched library serviced a temporary collection of books — about 4 million in total, many in the public domain — with a targeted focus of supporting remote teaching, research activities and independent scholarship. For this service, students paid nothing. 

This Open Library is now at the center of a lawsuit filed by major publishing corporations, including HarperCollins, Hatchett, Wiley and Random House, against the Internet Archives, a nonprofit website, alleging that the Open Library concept is a “mass copyright infringement.”

The lawsuit is scheduled for a federal court trial in 2021.  The publishers are seeking to have the Open Library permanently shut down.

Listen to the full conversation with journalist Maria Bustillos about the slippery slope of digital ownership.

Courtesy of Maria Bustillos
Courtesy of Maria Bustillos

In an op-ed written for The Nation, journalist and new media pioneer Maria Bustillos took a critical look at the lawsuit, the concept of an open library and what ownership means when major publishers seek to change what it means to own a book.

“With Open Library, you were able to borrow a book based on the existence of the physical book in that Open Library’s collection,” says Bustillos during an interview on CultureShift on 101.9 WDET.  

“When the pandemic hit and it became clear that a lot of students were affected by the lockdown and unable to access books, the head of the Internet Archive decided that he would suspend borrowing limits,” explains Bustillos. “Instead of making it one person per book, that limit was suspended so 10 people could borrow that same book. They buy, acquire and people donate physical copies to them, which they then scan. Each book that they scan becomes a file that you can check out and the physical book remains stored, it doesn’t circulate.” 

Bustillos points out that in addition to a change in ownership being at stake, what’s also at risk is cultural preservation and broad, inclusive access to archival material — in essence, a key component as to why libraries exist. 

“Publishers are not archivists and have no interest in preserving the culture for future generations,” says Bustillos. “If a book is in print, it’s because they think they can sell it. When that market goes away or diminishes, that book falls out of print and becomes impossible to access. We need new books and authors need to be paid for writing them. A healthy society will balance those interests against each other. Part of the library’s mission is preserving the culture so that people of future generations can educate themselves and become a benefit to society. The Internet Archive has been trying to create and maintain that balance while publishers are trying to alter it.”

Trusted, accurate, up-to-date

WDET is here to keep you informed on essential information, news and resources related to COVID-19.

This is a stressful, insecure time for many. So it’s more important than ever for you, our listeners and readers, who are able to donate to keep supporting WDET’s mission. Please make a gift today.

Donate today »