Four major book publishers have filed suit against the Internet Archive for copyright violations relating to the Open Library project, setting the stage for a major legal fight over one of the internet’s longest-running ebook archives.
Launched in 2006, Internet Archive’s Open Library allows users to borrow ebooks scanned from physical copies, according to a theory called “controlled digital lending” (or CDL) that limits how many times a single scan can be borrowed at once. The project expanded in March with the launch of the National Emergency Library, which suspended waitlists in response to the global pandemic, making all scanned books immediately accessible to anyone with an account.
Crucially, the project circumvents the typical licensing restrictions used by conventional libraries. Open Library’s ebooks are scanned from physical copies rather than purchased in their digital form, so the project never enters into a licensing agreement with the publisher.
Still, the four publishers — Hachette, Penguin Random House, Wiley, and HarperCollins — allege that the entire project is a wholesale copyright violation scheme. “Without any license or any payment to authors or publishers, [the Internet Archive] scans print books, uploads these illegally scanned books to its servers, and distributes verbatim digital copies of the books in whole via public-facing websites,” the plaintiffs allege. “With just a few clicks, any Internet-connected user can download complete digital copies of in-copyright books from [the] defendant.“
It’s a long-standing complaint from publishers and authors’ groups. In April, the Authors Guild circulated an open letter raising similar concerns. “You cloak your illegal scanning and distribution of books behind the pretense of magnanimously giving people access to them,” the letter reads. “But giving away what is not yours is simply stealing, and there is nothing magnanimous about that.”
Reached for comment, Internet Archive founder Brewster Kahle called the lawsuit “disappointing.”
“As a library, the Internet Archive acquires books and lends them, as libraries have always done,” Kahle told The Verge. “This supports publishing and authors and readers. Publishers suing libraries for lending books — in this case, protected digitized versions, and while schools and libraries are closed — is not in anyone’s interest.”
“We hope this can be resolved quickly,” he continued.
Update June 1st, 2:32PM ET: Updated with comment from Brewster Kahle.