Internet Archive lawsuit tackles digital lending and copyright

Sharing copyrighted music, movies, and books online can be legally insecure, and there are restrictions on how they can be loaned out.

When copyright laws were written, much of the technology we use today to consume media did not exist. The courts therefore decide how these loan rules apply.

And there is a big deal happening now.

Four major publishers are suing the Internet Archive, a website repository that also lends e-books.

Aram Sinnreich, a professor at the American University School of Communication, discussed the lawsuit with “Marketplace Tech” host Kimberly Adams. Sinnreich said the Internet Archive, like many libraries, has used a process called controlled digital lending for years. In this approach, libraries can send out one digital copy for every physical copy they hold.

The following is an edited transcript of their interview.

Aram Sinnreich: Basically, you can put an e-book or audiobook on hold, then when it becomes available, you can download it to your phone or even your Kindle, read it, listen to it, then when you’re done, send it back Download it the same way you would a physical copy of a book or CD. But during the first months of the pandemic, in 2020, the Internet Archive basically declared it to be such an emergency. So many people are going to school online, they are going to work online, we are going to allow more people to release our digital books than we actually have copies of the physical books. And so the publishers saw this as an opportunity to deliver a much bigger blow. What they thought was that this was an overly egregious reach, that if they took the Internet Archive to court, they could essentially shut down online lending by all libraries altogether. And that’s more or less what they’re trying to do with this case.

Kimberly Adams: Publishers were just waiting for that, it seems.

Sinnreich: Publishers have been looking for a way to ban controlled digital lending since its inception. And that was probably the best shot they had because they can tell a true story here that paints the Internet Archive as a group of copyright criminals. And if they can tell that story to a jury, they might eventually convince them that they are right and the Internet Archive is wrong.

Adam: What are the publishers saying in all of this? Do they have an alternative suggestion on how digital loans should be handled?

Sinnreich: Publishers believe that digital lending should essentially be a right that they license to libraries and that every time a library wants to lend something to a reader, publishers should collect a license fee. Right now, all these people are reading all these books without paying the publishers. So, publishers see this as an opportunity to get new revenue streams from all those things they weren’t getting paid for before.

Adam: I also imagine what it could do for local library budgets.

Sinnreich: It would be prohibitive for local libraries to have to pay even a small fee each time someone borrows a book. And so libraries are historically underfunded. Especially for the past 50 years, they have been very intentionally used as drivers of social mobility and social security in working-class neighborhoods. And without a doubt, these libraries would be the hardest hit.

An article from Vice’s Motherboard delves into the details of the case and the important issues surrounding it.

And if you’re wondering how the Internet Archive digitizes some of the millions of books on its virtual shelves, we have a video from the archive that shows the scanner designed by their engineers and an operator using it.

How do they do? Page by page. Again and again.

If you’re a music fan, the Internet Archive has an ongoing project called the Great 78, which has digitized over 300,000 recordings from 1898 through the 1950s.

The title of the project refers to old records that were played at 78 rpm, or revolutions per minute.

More modern records play at 33.3 or 45 rpm.

78s are also more fragile than modern vinyl records because they were primarily made from shellac, which is made from beetle resin, according to the Internet Archive.

Also, you might recognize Sinnreich’s voice. He was on our show earlier this year to talk about the laws and protections of another type of digital asset: NFTs, or non-fungible tokens. And if you don’t know exactly how these digital assets work, I’d listen to this episode on whatever device you use to listen to this digital copy.

Comments are closed.