The National Emergency Library and Its Discontents

Storyline Online has always been a beautiful idea—short videos of brilliant actors reading children’s picture books, enhanced by modest visual and sound effects. In the age of pandemic, with families confined morning, noon and night, it is a godsend. One video, of “Someone Loves You, Mr. Hatch” as brought to life by Hector Elizondo, particularly resonated in our house in these times. I’m no Elizando, I thought, but why not add the story to our bedtime reading repertory?Normally I would head to the branch library to get a copy. Not now, of course. And “Mr. Hatch,” which was first published in 1991, isn’t available as an eBook, either, cutting off another possibility within the library system. So I turned to the Internet Archive. I was working on a piece about the non-profit’s decision to open its collection of 1.4 million scanned print books without restrictions during this crisis, and a quick search revealed that “Mr. Hatch” was available. That night I downloaded the PDF for my almost 6-year-old daughter, who is learning to read by herself.
Here was just the sort of thing the Internet Archive’s founder, Brewster Kahle, might have had in mind when he declared the opening of a “national emergency library.” The Archive, he’d promised, was “coming to aid those that are forced to learn at home.”

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Subscribe to WIRED and stay smart with more of your favorite Ideas writers.Not everyone would be so grateful. Colson Whitehead, for one, observed on Twitter that the Archive isn’t really a library at all. “They scan books illegally and put them online,” he wrote, and pointed to a digital copy of his autobiographical novel “Sag Harbor” that was “not one bought by a library they ‘have an arrangement with.’ It’s a scan of a not-for-sale advance copy for book reviewers.” Indeed, you can see the cover of “Sag Harbor” at the Archive, which contains a note from Whitehead to that effect.Other well-known writers echoed Whitehead’s point; as did the Authors’ Guild, which declared that the Archive “has no rights whatsoever to these books, much less to give them away indiscriminately without consent of the publisher or author.”
Storyline Online, at least, has a relationship with publishers. According to its website, the special rights that it obtains “do NOT extend to any other organizations. You do not have the right to create your own videos from the books we use unless you negotiate your own permissions with the rights holders of those books.” The Internet Archive, on the other hand, does not negotiate with publishers at all.Digital-focused information “liberators” such as Kahle have been at odds with artists and publishers for decades. In the late 1990s, Napster tantalized us with the prospect of a universal digital musical library at our fingertips—no permission sought or granted. Then the service was shuttered after losing a legal challenge to its way of operating. More recently, there has been litigation in federal courts touching on an issue raised by the Archive’s actions: whether an owner of a digital copy of a creative work can re-sell it without permission, the way one sells used books or records. In a victory for copyright owners, a federal appeals court ruled in 2018 that transmitting the file via the Internet was tantamount to copying it, rather than shipping it, and thus infringed copyright.

The arguments here are both legalistic and thorny, balancing the interests of those who produce creative works against the interests of the public, who might benefit from greater access to those works. Impose too many copyright-based restrictions and you stifle the cultural and political conversation. Impose too few and you hinder the creation of the works that are the basis of that conversation.

In recent years, corporations have successfully lobbied Congress to vastly extend the terms of copyright, to the end of preventing icons like Mickey Mouse or Batman from ever slipping into the public domain. (The year 2024, when Mickey is set to leave Disney’s control, beckons nevertheless.) That context often seemed to give the digital liberators the higher moral ground: they were encouraging new creative efforts as opposed to greedily protecting assets.