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Authors, Publishers Condemn The 'National Emergency Library' As 'Piracy'

Ariel Skelley
Getty Images

Last week, when the Internet Archive announced its "National Emergency Library," expanding access to more than a million digitized works, the group explained the move as a goodwill gesture in the time of coronavirus.

With so many brick-and-mortar libraries forced to close their doors, in other words, the group was opening up its lending program: Now, instead of its usual policy of just one digital copy per reader for a 14-day period, many frustrated readers could borrow copies of the same book during the same time — and could do so through the end of June or the end of the global pandemic, whichever came sooner.

But there's one major issue that several media outlets, including NPR, failed to mention in covering the decision: Many writers and publishers say the website, even before the creation of this National Emergency Library, has been sharing full digital copies of their books without their permission.

And over the weekend, dozens of prominent authors, from Colson Whitehead and Neil Gaiman to Alexander Chee, made clear that they were upset with the Internet Archive's model — and doubly so now, with the expansion of lending services and its timing.

"With mean writing incomes of only $20,300 a year prior to the crisis, authors, like others, are now struggling all the more — from cancelled book tours and loss of freelance work, income supplementing jobs, and speaking engagements," the Authors Guild, a professional group that provides legal assistance to writers, said in a statement released Friday.

"And now they are supposed to swallow this new pill, which robs them of their rights to introduce their books to digital formats as many hundreds of midlist authors do when their books go out of print, and which all but guarantees that author incomes and publisher revenues will decline even further."

The guild said that last year alone it sent the organization hundreds of takedown notices on behalf of the writers it represents, citing the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. The 1998 law lays a framework for preventing users from creating digital copies of copyrighted material and circulating it without the copyright holder's permission.

"Acting as a piracy site — of which there already are too many — the Internet Archive tramples on authors' rights by giving away their books to the world," the guild added.

The Science Fiction Writers of America has previously objected to the Internet Archive's "infringement." And the Association of American Publishers, in a statement of its own Friday, condemned the move as "a cynical play to undermine copyright, and all the scientific, creative, and economic opportunity that it supports."

The Internet Archive pushed back against this characterization with a lengthy rebuttal published online Monday.

"We're librarians. We're not social media gladiators," Brewster Kahle of the Internet Archive told NPR over the phone Monday. "The best I can tell, [the critics of the system] just think what they see on social media, and they retweet it."

Kahle said the group uses the same controls limiting access to these works as the publishers themselves, with encrypted files that are meant to disappear from the user's computer after a brief period. The copies the group lends, Kahle said, are owned by the Internet Archive — either through donations, straight-up purchases or collaborations with brick-and-mortar libraries.

Typically, Kahle said readers can obtain just one copy of a book at a time through the Internet Archive. He said the difference with the "National Emergency Library," with waitlists now suspended through the end of June, is that those limits have been removed and multiple copies of the same book are now available.

"We're trying to weave books into the Web," Kahle said of the Internet Archive's mission.

Chuck Wendig, a prolific novelist who joined the chorus of authors criticizing the move on Twitter, took issue with the notion of calling the Internet Archive's catalog a "library."

"It's worth noting," he said in an email to NPR on Monday, that while the site appears to cooperate with DMCA takedown notices, "authors and publishers do not generally have to submit those types of requests to libraries, which again suggests that this is not 'business as usual,' nor is it a library in the expected sense of the word."

In the email, he explained that on a recent visit to the website, he was able to find and obtain a full digital copy of one of his books — which he says the group did not have the right to distribute.

"The problem with bypassing copyright and disrupting the chain of royalties that lead from books to authors is that it endangers our ability to continue to produce art — and though we are all in the midst of a crisis, most artists are on the razor's edge in terms of being able to support themselves," he added. "Artists get no safety net."

Instead, he suggested that readers simply check out e-books from their local library, whether or not its brick-and-mortar location is closed due to the coronavirus. The New York Public Library, for one, says it has seen a surge in e-book lending and is continuing many of its public services online.

"Libraries all around the country deserve their time to shine in this crisis, as we realize what vital institutions they are," Wendig said, "both intellectually and as a service to the community."

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Colin Dwyer covers breaking news for NPR. He reports on a wide array of subjects — from politics in Latin America and the Middle East, to the latest developments in sports and scientific research.