The Internet Archive was founded in October, 1996 by computer scientist Brewster Kahle. His mission for the archive was ambitious to say the least: “to provide Universal Access to All Knowledge.” While the archive would eventually grow to include digitized copies of books, music, film, and so much more, the Internet Archive spent its first four years exclusively archiving the web.
It wasn’t until 2005 that the Internet Archive began digitizing books in order to create an online library “which aims to produce the world’s greatest catalogue of all books.” This would eventually be called the Open Library, an open-source online library which functions much like a physical library. Users must create a free account and “check out” the book they would like to read digitally, with the exception of books that were published before 1926 which are in the public domain. The library must maintain an even “owned-to-loaned” ratio. In other words, the number of people allowed to check out a book at one time must be equal to the number of physical copies owned by the Internet Archive. This system is called Controlled Digital Lending, or CDL.
In March 2020 when the COVID-19 pandemic began, the Internet Archive announced the National Emergency Library. From March 24th to June 30th, the Internet Archive suspended waitlists for all books in the Open Library, essentially offering unlimited access to all titles. This was a clear violation of the owned-to-loaned rule, and naturally, controversy ensued.
Even though the Internet Archive has always removed any published works upon request of the author, four major publishers filed lawsuits against the archive for violating copyright law by overextending access to copyrighted material. Further, they called into question the CDL system, claiming that it counts as “a reproduction of the original, which only the copyright holder has the right to do” according to Robin Schard).
This lawsuit highlights the tension that exists between the Open Access movement and intellectual property law. No matter how many information professionals share Kahle’s dream of “universal access to all knowledge”, authors need an incentive to write, and we need authors for knowledge creation.
According to Robin Schard, the lawsuit filed by the four publishers against the Internet Archive is “tentatively scheduled for trial in November 2021.” I will be interested to see the outcome, particularly whether Controlled Digital Lending comes under fire as an unfair system for publishers and authors. As the Internet Archive approaches its 25th birthday (as do I), I find myself wondering what the next 25 years will bring, and whether copyright law will be forced to bend to the changing digital landscape, or the Internet Archive (and other digital archives and libraries) will be forced to reign itself in from its ambitious goal of providing free information to anyone who seeks it.
– Lizzie George, INFO 653-01
Robin Schard (2021) Hachette Book Group v. Internet Archive: Is There a Better Way to Restore Balance in Copyright?, Internet Reference Services Quarterly, 24:1-2, 53-58, DOI: 10.1080/10875301.2021.1875100