Internet Archive infringes publisher’s copyrights by lending e-books, court judgments

A federal judge has ruled against the Internet Archive in his high-profile case against a group of four US publishers led by the Hachette Book Group. According to Reuters, Judge John G. Koeltl said Friday that the nonprofit violated the group’s copyrights by lending out digitally scanned copies of their books.

The lawsuit arose out of the Internet Archive’s decision to create the National Emergency Library in the early days of the pandemic. Under the program, the organization offered more than 1.4 million free e-books, including works protected by copyright, in response to libraries worldwide closing their doors due to coronavirus lockdown measures.

Prior to March 2020, the Internet Archive’s Open Library program ran under what was known as a “controlled digital lending regime,” meaning there was often a waiting list to borrow a book from its collection. When the pandemic hit, the Internet Archive lifted these restrictions to make it easier for people to access reading material while stuck at home. The Copyright Alliance was quick to question the effort. And in June 2020, Hachette, along with HarperCollins, Penguin Random House and John Wiley & Sons sued The Internet Archive, accusing the organization of enabling “willful mass copyright infringement.” That same month, the Internet Archive prematurely shut down the National Emergency Program.

At the start of this week’s trial, the Internet Archive argued that the initiative was protected by the fair use principle, which allows unlicensed use of copyrighted works under certain circumstances. As The Verge notes, in 2014 HathiTrust, an offshoot of the Google Books Search project, successfully used a similar argument to ward off a legal challenge from The Authors Guild. Judge Koeltl, however, dismissed the Internet Archive’s stance, declaring that “there is nothing transformative” about lending unauthorized copies of books. “Although [the Internet Archive] has the right to lend lawfully purchased printed books, it does not have the right to scan those books and lend the digital copies en masse,” he wrote. Maria Pallante, President and CEO of the Association of American Publishers, said the ruling “underscored the importance of authors, publishers and creative markets in a global society.”

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On Saturday, the Internet Archive announced that it would appeal the decision. “Libraries are more than customer service departments for corporate database products. For democracy to thrive on a global scale, libraries must be able to maintain their historical role in society — owning, preserving, and lending books,” the nonprofit wrote in a blog post. “This ruling is a blow to libraries, readers and authors, and we plan to appeal.”