Writers Accuse Internet Archive of Theft

The National Emergency Library allows unfettered access to more than one million free ebooks

NPR thought it was doing a good thing last week by recommending the National Emergency Library, which is what the Internet Archive is calling its decision to suspend its waiting list and allow unfettered access to its more than one million free ebooks. But over the weekend, numerous writers like Neil Gaiman and Chuck Wendig took to Twitter to call out the organization as thieves:

The Internet Archive is a San Francisco-based nonprofit that’s “building a digital library of Internet sites and other cultural artifacts in digital form.” “Like a paper library,” their website reads, “we provide free access to researchers, historians, scholars, the print disabled, and the general public. Our mission is to provide Universal Access to All Knowledge.” The National Emergency Library is just one recent part of that goal.

Unlike a paper library, which owns its physical and digital copies of materials and distributes them to members under Fair Use laws, many argue that the Internet Archive pirates its materials.

Writers Reject the Premise

“I do not condone any violation of my copyrighted works at any time,” says author Alan Brennert, whose 2019 novel Daughter of Moloka’i is currently available on the Internet Archive, in an interview with Book & Film Globe. “I should also point out that in this time of crisis, my publisher, Macmillan, has lifted all restrictions on library borrows of digital copies of their books, so Daughter of Moloka’i is widely available online through public libraries. I urge readers to use these authorized distributors rather than Internet Archive. I shall be contacting them to request that they take down my book from their site at once.”

Gaiman replied to NPR on Twitter, citing a statement from the Authors Guild, which reads in part, “The Authors Guild is appalled by the Internet Archive’s (IA) announcement that it is now making millions of in-copyright books freely available online without restriction on its Open Library site under the guise of a National Emergency Library. IA has no rights whatsoever to these books, much less to give them away indiscriminately without consent of the publisher or author.” The statement further indicated that the guild has long opposed the Internet Archive and demanded the site take down its members’ work.

In a statement to NPR, spokesperson Brewster Kahle indicated that the National Emergency Library is a real library that does not pirate books. The IA owns the copies it lends. They have the same limits to access and time that a publisher would enforce in a traditional library.

A More Compassionate Response

If this weren’t currently a moment of unprecedented worldwide crisis, this likely wouldn’t even be a conversation. Pirating books, even in the spirit of increased access, is theft. But forcing people to stay inside and closing most resources for low income, people argue, could compel a more compassionate response to the National Emergency Library.

Writer and parent Amber DeGrace cites the Internet Archive as pivotal in her ability to transition to homeschooling her children. “What makes the Internet Archive so beneficial for educational purposes is that many older or out-of-print books that might not be available on bookselling sites are readily available here,” she tells Book & Film Globe. “For instance, a recommended book for my kids’ history curriculum is Morning Girl by Michael Dorris. While I could have purchased it on Amazon, I can’t afford to buy all these supplemental resources, and our local libraries have been closed for weeks.”  It was, however, available for borrowing in the National Emergency Library.

COVID-19 Has Ended Access

The Internet Archive is online, so already there’s a level of privilege necessary to access its resources: at a minimum, you need a device, access to the web, and the knowledge to get yourself to their website. But simply shouting, “Get a library card!” right now feels a little insufficient. Libraries are champions for limiting barriers to access their often vital information and services. But those barriers–like needing to prove your residency, requiring ID, preventing people with fines from borrowing, and, right now, being closed because of COVID-19exist.

Recently, I tried to sign up for a library card online for my elderly mother who doesn’t have one. The Free Library of Philadelphia has an incredible website, but no matter what information of hers I entered, home or cell phone numbers, work or personal emails, home or work address, the website said she already had an account and required her to come into a physical branch with ID to get a library card. She has never had an account. And the library has closed all its physical branches indefinitely.

Very successful authors like Gaiman acting like these barriers aren’t a problem comes from a place of privilege, especially considering that the Internet Archive is not going to hurt the finances of successful authors with legal teams to fight copyright infringement. The National Emergency Library’s unlimited access to copyrighted material disproportionately affects struggling writers, making this an off-shoot of the current conversation around publishing power started by American Dirt.

“[W]e’re in the middle of a global crisis that is exposing how abysmal American social safety nets are currently. Authors are no exception. I suspect we’d care a lot less if we had stronger safety nets, but we don’t,” said author Margaret Owen in a tweet. “I see this debate too frequently reduced to ‘you think poor people don’t deserve nice things’ and as someone who has stretched rice, two chicken breasts, and a can of mushroom soup for a week because that’s what food stamps covered, I kindly invite you to fuck off with that.”

Access to entertainment during this current moment–of isolation for some and loss of income for many, including countless authors–is a complicated issue. Writers should ideally receive a living wage for their work, and everyone should be able to access their work legally through a library. COVID-19 has highlighted countless societal problems. But in this case, it’s clearer than ever that our system of compensating authors for their work comes up short.

Katie Smith

Katie Smith is a Philadelphia-based writer. Find her on Instagram at @realmoaningmyrtle for cat pics.

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