Free books online? Who could be against that? Business.

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Free books online? Who could be against that? Business.


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Free books online? Who could be against that?

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By Editorial Board
June 9, 2020 at 5:47 p.m. EDT
IMAGINE A repository full of free books, available at the click of a button to anyone, anywhere, anytime. Whether this is a utopia, a dystopia or something in between depends on whom you ask — but thanks to the Internet Archive, it’s a reality. Now publishers are suing to stop it.

The Internet Archive is a nonprofit responsible for, well, archiving the Internet. Its Wayback Machine, cataloging Web pages for posterity, has been a boon to journalists seeking out deleted or disappeared information; its cache of political advertisements is a boon to democracy; its collection of age-old documents is a treasure trove for history geeks.

Its storehouse of scanned physical copies of books, however, is possibly illegal. And its decision amid the novel coronavirus pandemic to create a “National Emergency Library” by suspending limitations on how frequently these books can be “lent out” makes the problem worse.

The copyright system for print books and e-books is a bit of a labyrinth. The markets for the two are separate because their natures are distinct — in how easily they’re produced, how easily they’re distributed and how susceptible they are to wear and tear. Yet libraries pay per “copy” of e-book through licensing agreements just as they pay for literal copies of print books, and that limits how many borrowers may have a book on their tablets at any one time. The Internet Archive’s approach cuts against both of these principles: It treats print books and e-books as interchangeable by uploading any print product for electronic download, and now it allows those downloads to proceed limitlessly. Plus, these products were as free for the archive as they are for those the archive is serving; the organization isn’t paying licensing fees to publishers at all.

And yet — the archive does appear to be serving a need. The National Emergency Library, which defends its strategy as copyright fair use, is supposed to get books to people when physical libraries are closed. Because print books and e-books are indeed not interchangeable, physical libraries are not able to start lending out extra electronic products in place of the print products they can no longer dispense. The waiting lines for e-books are longer than ever today, but lines were already long because libraries often can’t afford enough e-books to meet demand. And many print books haven’t been converted into official e-book format at all.

The Internet Archive’s approach is much like piracy and less like a library. The repository ought to negotiate with publishers to get more books to more people — but also more money to more authors who’ve rightfully earned it. Yet what this kerfuffle over a non-library reveals is really a library problem. The legal and business landscape lags a public that more and more is reading digitally. Publishers impose fees and conditions that they consider necessary to stay afloat and librarians consider draconian. It’s past time to catch up: The National Emergency Library isn’t really a library, but libraries are facing a bit of a national emergency.
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