The Controversy Over the National Emergency Library

A virtual library with real-world issues...

On March 24, the Internet Archive announced the launch of the National Emergency Library, a project that aimed to make it easier for those stuck at home due to the COVID-19 pandemic to check out books from it.

However, it wasn’t so much a new library as a temporary change of policy to its existing lending library. The Internet Archive has a library of 2.5 million public domain books that are fully available for download and a library of some 1.4 million books scanned through partnerships with other libraries.

Normally those books are only available for borrowing for one person at a time and those that “check out” a book that’s already being borrowed by someone else is put on a waiting list. However, with last week’s announcement, the Internet Archive suspended those waiting lists allowing as many people to check out a book as they wanted.

Though this announcement was originally met with significant praise, especially from the media, it also represented a major change for the Internet Archive. Rather than simply lending one copy of a book that they controlled, they were making the works publicly available to everyone at the same time. From a practical standpoint, this is not significantly different than a physical library just printing a new copy of a book every time someone requested a book that had been checked out.

Because of this, the backlash was also swift. Both the Authors Guild and American Association of Publishers quickly released statements condemning it. The Copyright Alliance, in their statement, called the Internet Archive’s actions “Particularly vile.”

So, let’s take a look at the National Emergency Library. What it is, how it works and, most importantly, what its impacts on authors will likely be.

How the National Emergency Library Works

Signing up for the National Emergency Library is remarkably easy. Their account sign up page, which is necessary to get your “virtual library card” only requires an email address, a username and a password, nothing else.

Once you’ve confirmed your email, you’re taken straight away into the library. From there, you can simply search for the book, or books, that you want.

For my test, I decided to look for Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, a book that I confirmed is currently not available from my local library’s e-lending catalog.

However, in the Internet Archive’s library, it wasn’t just available, they had multiple versions of it available as well.

The National Emergency Library Sampel image

From there, with one simply click to “borrow” the book, I was reading the book with, assumedly, has been checked out by others and its use on the site was not licensed by J.K. Rowling or her publisher.

I was also able to download either a PDF or an Epub version of the book, both of which required Adobe Digital Editions to view.

The ePub edition was, in a word, very rough. The optical character recognition technology used to read the book did not do a stellar job as you can see in the screenshot below.

The full PDF version was somewhat better, but required a significantly larger download. One that took several minutes even on my relatively sturdy home connection. It also featured the scans of the pages themselves, meaning there was no way to adjust the font. However, it was still searchable.

All versions of the book, including the online scanned version and the downloadable ones, have a 14-day checkout period, after which it can be checked out again.

To that end, it functions much like any other e-lending service, the only difference being that all books are books are immediately available to anyone, regardless of how many are owned and how many people want it.

That, however, is the exact problem with it. Borrowers aren’t “borrowing” anything. They’re simply accessing a copyright-protected work in a way that is no different from a regular ebook pirate website. The very thing that makes a library a library, the lending of purchased copies, is gone.

The Main Issue

When rightsholders say that the National Emergency Library operates like a pirate site, they are not being hyperbolic. The only thing that separates the behavior the Internet Archive from a true pirate website is its connection with real libraries and that it is being done by an organization that is largely respected.

If I, as an individual, took my legally-acquired copy of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix and put it online for everyone to view, that would be piracy. If I limited access to it to fourteen days or made people sign up for an account before accessing the book, it would still be piracy.

Surrounding copyright infringements with the trappings of a library does not make it less infringing. It just gives it an air of legitimacy that may fool some well-meaning readers.

The Internet Archive responds to these criticisms saying that this is allowed under the legal doctrine of controlled digital lending (CDL). However, CDL itself is something of a controversial concept, something even the Internet Archive acknowledges, but, even if it is legal, what the library does violates one of the most basic tenets of CDL, namely the one user/one copy requirement. With the change, one copy reaches many, many users, which is flagrantly against the spirit of CDL.

While the goal of providing accessible entertainment and education to the masses during a time of national crisis is laudable, this comes at the expense of those that create those works. People who are struggling now more than ever.

It’s easy to see why authors and publishers have jumped on this and condemned it. But, is it really going to harm authors? That’s a slightly more complex question.

How it Hurts Authors

Having dabbled with the National Emergency Library’s tools for a bit, I can safely say that the experience of using it is, in a word, tragic.

The search function doesn’t work well and, even in the screenshot above, you can see it fed me irrelevant books. Viewing the book on my desktop is slow and difficult to read since is nothing more than scans from the book and the ePub version is borderline unusable due to OCR errors. Even the PDF version, which provided the best experience was slow to download, difficult to read and required me to install new software.

For those that want to simply pirate books you can easily get better versions without the 14-day timer online. If you don’t want to pirate books, the National Emergency Library is a very poor substitute for legally-acquired books. You can actually read Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix for free on Kindle Unlimited or just pay $9 to buy it right now.

To be clear, these are all things that the Internet Archive acknowledges.

However, the threat of the National Emergency Library isn’t that it’s going to become the preferred way to pirate books or that it is a better experience than actually purchasing books. Instead, it’s the aforementioned air of legitimacy. The library received glowing coverage from mainstream media including NPR, The New Yorker and the AFP. Though more balanced coverage came in the days that followed, the tone was largely set.

And that, I suspect, is the real concern. Not the piracy that may happen between now and June 30, but the risk of using a national emergency to normalize piracy. However, with all parties so occupied by the unfolding crisis, it’s difficult to say who, if anyone, is in a position to actually do anything about it at this time.

I suspect that, if there is a reckoning over this in the courts, it will be well after everything has died down.

Bottom Line

On March 26, two days after the library launched but just as the news media was reporting on it, I posted a tweet calling for a copyright peace.

When I wrote that, I was thinking about how Neil Gaiman is granting LeVar Burton blanket permission to read his stories online, Bandcamp was waiving their share of revenue on sales and there seemed to be a general spirit of collaboration to ensure that artists didn’t suffer unduly but that access to their work was increased for those that needed it.

In one swoop, the Internet Archive seems to have erased that spirit of cooperation.

What the Internet Archive did doesn’t come from a place of self-sacrifice. Other than additional bandwidth costs, it sacrifices nothing and even got a great deal of positive media attention out of it. Instead, it forces the sacrifice on the authors without their permission and, even worse, requires them to opt-out if they disagree with it. Meaning authors are forced to sacrifice their works until they make a different sacrifice of their time.

While I use J.K. Rowling as my example, she’s one of the fortunate ones. Most authors make much, much less with the Author’s Guild putting the average at $20,300 per year. Those authors are suffering too and using a national crisis to normalize piracy is simply twisting the knife.

Yes, there are issues with making works accessible, especially ones that were not wildly successful commercially, but this is not the answer. There are solutions that can address those problems without resorting to blanket piracy. After all, no one is struggling to find a copy of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. So why is it part of this initiative?

We need to come together, not force others to bear a sacrifice because paying them is inconvenient. We need original solutions, not piracy disguised as altruism. Most importantly, we need collaboration, not forced cooperation.

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