Publisher’s lawsuit seeks to take down Internet Archive’s digital lending library

Jaime E. Love

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The Internet Archive is an online digital library based in San Francisco, California, and founded in 1996 with the stated mission of providing “Universal Access to All Knowledge.” The archive enables the public to view large collections of digitized music, books and film for free.

Internet Archive servers at the headquarters in San Francisco.

As of May 2022, the Internet Archive had accumulated over 35 million books and texts, 7.9 million movies, videos and TV shows, 842,000 software programs, 14 million audio files, 4 million images, 2.4 million TV clips and 237,000 concerts. Access to the massive repository is available to researchers, historians, scholars, people with disabilities like low vision and dyslexia and the general public.

Among the platform’s most popular assets is the Wayback Machine. This is a digital archive of the World Wide Web that allows users to go “back in time” and see how websites looked up to 25 years ago. The Wayback Machine has recorded 682 billion web pages because, as explained by the publisher, “Like newspapers, the content published on the web was ephemeral—but unlike newspapers, no one was saving it.”

While the Internet Archive provides a window into the potential for online information and digital media to be made available to everyone in a manner similar to that of a public library, the repository has come under a vicious attack by powerful corporate and financial interests.

In June 2020, four major publishers—John Wiley & Sons and three of the big five US publishers, Hachette Book Group, HarperCollins and Penguin Random House—filed a lawsuit against the Internet Archive, claiming the non-profit organization, “is engaged in willful mass copyright infringement.”

The lawsuit stems from the corporate publishers response to an innovative temporary initiative launched by the Internet Archive during the first months of the coronavirus pandemic called the National Emergency Library. Given the impact of the public health emergency, the Internet Archive decided to ease its book lending restrictions and allow multiple people to check out the same digital copy of a book at once.

Up to that point, the Internet Archive had established a practice of purchasing copies of printed books, digitizing them and lending them to borrowers one at a time. When it kicked-off the emergency lending program, the Internet Archive made it clear that this policy would be in effect until the end of the pandemic. Furthermore, the archive’s publishers said that this program was in response to library doors being closed to the public during the pandemic. Under conditions where the Internet Archive was the only means of access to titles for many people, the policy was justified and a creative response to COVID-19.

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