Authors Scrutinize “National Emergency Library” for Violating Copyright Law

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Last week, the non-profit Internet Archive announced it would be launching a “National Emergency Library,” providing online public access to over a million digitized books and texts. The organization noted that, amid the coronavirus pandemic that has students and readers across the nation trapped indoors, it was ending all wait-lists and availing its full collection as an act of goodwill.

As a result, the website is receiving blowback from writers and publishers, claiming that the program—and behavior by Internet Archive even before the recent decision—violates copyright law by sharing full editions of books without the permission of their creators.

Dozens of leading authors, including Colton Whitehead and Neil Gaiman, called-out Internet Archive over the weekend, criticizing its good intentions for leading to revenue theft. Whitehead, who won the Pulitzer Prize in 2017 for his novel The Underground Railroad, insists that the Internet Archive “is not a library,” saying that all they do is “scan books illegally and put them online.”

The Author’s Guild, a group which provides legal assistance to writers, released a fiery statement on Friday in regard to the Archives’ program: “With mean writing incomes of only $20,300 a year prior to the crisis, authors, like others, are now struggling all the more — from cancelled book tours and loss of freelance work, income supplementing jobs, and speaking engagements.”

“And now,” the Author’s Guild continued, “they are supposed to swallow this new pill, which robs them of their rights to introduce their books to digital formats as many hundreds of midlist authors do when their books go out of print, and which all but guarantees that author incomes and publisher revenues will decline even further.”

The complexity of the situation is part of a much longer narrative about how to monitor and enforce copyright laws on the internet. While Internet Archives claims that it does the work of any public library by buying and temporarily lending literature to readers for free, its critics argue that it surpasses the agreements that publishers make with libraries, since the internet makes it harder to limit access and keep track of how many people are actually using materials they haven’t paid for. As for the National Emergency Library, it is currently still open.