By Claire Booth
So lots of books are suddenly being offered free. This is fabulous. Children’s authors are giving permission for celebrities to read their books, so any kid can go online and have a story read to them. Publishers are opening up whole catalogs to promote wider access. Writers are giving away hard copies and digital copies and probably printed-off-their-home-computer copies. And we’re all asking anyone who can to patronize an independent bookstore, one of the hardest hit categories of small business right now.
BUT. There is one entity that is trying to opportunistically capitalize on this moment in time. By stealing. An outfit called the Internet Archive has, for years, been scanning and putting content online. Some are works in the public domain (like Hamlet, or Edgar Allan Poe). Those are absolutely allowed to be given away for free. But others are books, plays, or poems still under copyright. Which means you need permission and that’s something the Internet Archive has, in many instances, not gotten. The one limit they’ve placed on things is that there are only so many “copies” and you need to wait in line to read something.
That is no longer the case. Internet Archive announced this week that it has suspended its waitlist requirements. Anyone can check out a digital/scanned book from their “collection.” They’re calling it the “National Emergency Library” and trying to sell it as some sort of socially responsible act.
One of my books, The False Prophet: Conspiracy, Extortion and Murder in the Name of God, is listed on this website. The site isn’t lending out a hard copy that it bought, which would be fine. It isn’t lending out an e-book version that it bought, which works like a physical version and can only be loaned out once at a time. Instead, it is lending out a scanned version. And as far as I understand it, with the elimination of a waitlist, it’s essentially creating additional e-copies of my book out of thin air without my permission. This violates my copyright.
So why would I be upset if this potentially gets my book in the hands of readers? Here's why:
1. They didn't ask first.
2. In the Internet Archive’s blog post on this, it says: “The books that we’ve digitized have been acquired with a focus on materials published during the 20th century, the vast majority of which do not have a commercially available ebook.” I call BS. Because guess what? My ebook is commercially available, a fact that Google can tell you in under two seconds. One friend found eight of her books, both fiction and non-fiction and all very much still commercially available, on this website. That’s almost her entire writing life’s work. Another looked up his name and found one of his novels that still has the Boston Public Library sticker and bar code on the cover. If someone found that at a used book sale and plunked down a dollar for it, good for them. They can then do what they want with it—except run off multiple copies and sell them. This is exactly what the “National Emergency Library” is doing.
3. I’m getting no compensation for what should be multiple sales of my book.
4. My non-fiction ebook costs $7.99 (and I don’t even get that full amount). I think that's a fair price for the four years it took me to report, research and write. But heck, if you the reader can't afford that and get in touch with me directly, I'll gladly and cheerfully send you one for free. At least then I would be the one deciding to give away my work.
Here’s what the Authors Guild organization had to say on Friday:
IA is using a global crisis to advance a copyright ideology that violates current federal law and hurts most authors. It has misrepresented the nature and legality of the project through a deceptive publicity campaign. Despite giving off the impression that it is expanding access to older and public domain books, a large proportion of the books on Open Library are in fact recent in-copyright books that publishers and authors rely on for critical revenue. Acting as a piracy site—of which there already are too many—the Internet Archive tramples on authors’ rights by giving away their books to the world.
Also Friday, the Association of American Publishers said this:
We are stunned by the Internet Archive’s aggressive, unlawful, and opportunistic attack on the rights of authors and publishers in the midst of the novel coronavirus pandemic.
Publishers are working tirelessly to support the public with numerous, innovative, and socially-aware programs that address every side of the crisis: providing free global access to research and medical journals that pertain to the virus; offering complementary digital education materials to schools and parents; and expanding powerful storytelling platforms for readers of all ages.
It is the height of hypocrisy that the Internet Archive is choosing this moment – when lives, livelihoods and the economy are all in jeopardy – to make a cynical play to undermine copyright, and all the scientific, creative, and economic opportunity that it supports.
I think it’s important to point out here that I love, love, love legitimate libraries. I use them regularly as a reader, I’ve done programs there as an author, and I donate to them as a citizen. And I’m in awe as to how they’ve stepped up during this pandemic. They’ve increased their digital access capabilities while having to shut their physical locations. They’ve extended due dates. They’re running kids’ story times online. They’ve coordinated with online tutors in different subjects. And probably done a dozen more things I don’t even know about.
Internet Archive does finally say (in the second-to-last paragraph of their “National Emergency” announcement) that it encourages those who can to buy books through independent bookstores. It also encourages us authors to donate our books if it doesn’t already have a copy. THAT should've been where they started this whole thing. Ask first. Authors are some of the most generous people on the planet. We'd probably say yes. Instead, these people are taking away the one sure thing we have in this tough business--our copyright.