Is the Internet Archive’s free emergency library piracy?

The Internet Archive launched the “National Emergency Archive” last week, uploading 1.4 million titles online for free, ostensibly to help encourage people to stay home and read (newsflash: people who read already want to stay home because a) they enjoy their chairs, and b) they are smarter than the people who are going out all the time right now… Maybe there should be a “National Emergency Beer Fridge” to scoop up the rest?) But some people, namely authors and their allied tradespeople who rely on making money from the books in question, aren’t pleased. Thoughts?

Founded in 1996 to archive web pages, the IA began digitising books in 2005. It has long been at loggerheads with writers’ organisations who have accused it of uploading books that are not in the public domain, and denying authors potential income from sales and public library borrowing.

On 24 March, the IA announced it was suspending waitlists, meaning it can lend books to anyone in the world at the same time – instead of the one-in, one-out ebook borrowing system used by most public libraries. The move was pitched as addressing “our unprecedented global and immediate need for access to reading and research material” during the Covid-19 outbreak.

Several authors condemned the decision, including Pulitzer-winner Colson Whitehead, who tweeted: “They scan books illegally and put them online. It’s not a library.”

In a fiery statement, the Authors Guild in the US called the decision appalling and said it was “shocked that the IA would use the Covid-19 epidemic as an excuse to push copyright law further out to the edges, and in doing so, harm authors, many of whom are already struggling”. Writers around the world have faced cancelled book tours and loss of freelance work during the crisis, while many bookshops have been forced to close.

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