This week, a lawsuit from the Association of American Publishers forced the nonprofit Internet Archive to shutdown its ebook lending program. This program, which was expanded during the coronavirus pandemic, dubbed a “National Emergency Library,” was to remain open until June 30th or the end of the pandemic (whichever occurred last).
The lawsuit has put an end to this digital library, which saw the archive lend digital copies of purchased or donated books that the archive would then scan, attach DRM (digital rights management), and lend to borrowers on a limited time basis.
The problem here is the large manner of control that the Association of American Publishers, and ostensibly the “Big 5” publishing houses are exerting. In a logical sense, the Internet Archive is operating exactly how a library operates. Or at the very least, how the average person knows a library operates.
The Archive purchases books or accepts donations from patrons of the library, and offers them up to be borrowed for a limited time. That’s essentially the gist of how your local library appears to operate on the surface.
Unbeknownst to most however is that publishers force libraries into fairly brutal licensing agreements in order to have digital copies of ebooks and audiobooks available to download. Some contracts are for perpetual use, some are on a pay-per-borrow, some are for a limited number of borrows. This is why a library may have one copy of a book and five of another. The agreements are different between each publisher and even each title and it is a continual push-and-pull between libraries and publishers, but the agreements always work in favor of the publishers.
Recently there was a major dustup over MacMillan refusing to offer new titles to libraries, insisting they would lose sales as people would get the books for “free” from the library in lieu of purchasing them. MacMillan relented after major backlash from libraries, readers, and, authors. One borrowed book does not equal one lost sale.
In truth though, the libraries don’t have much leverage. If they don’t accept the terms set by publishing houses, they don’t get ebook copies. It’s that simple.
This is the real story of this lawsuit. This is a suit under the guise of copyright infringement and protecting authors’ royalties, but in reality, it’s about squashing dissent. The Internet Archive isn’t playing by publisher terms, and that just won’t do.
What publishers so often don’t realize, or don’t care to realize, is that actions like making it harder for libraries to operate and attempting to destroy a legal public utility like the Internet Archive are what cause piracy.
Piracy is born when the legal methods to obtain media are too cumbersome or not worthwhile. Ebooks with their 67 bajillion forms of DRM and walled gardens and locked devices and apps and readers and file formats are already too difficult for an end user. Ramping up that barrier to entry for people without the income or those that want to try-before-you-buy only ensures they won’t buy books in the future.
As an indie publisher, losing utilities like the Internet Archive is damaging to the preservation of media and the ease of access to information, records, and pop culture. The Internet Archive was acting just like a library, and shuttling this service is akin to shutting a library down. The precedent here is frightening.