The Internet Archive has just opened due to the COVID-19 pandemic, releasing a lending library of 1.4 million free ebooks. Announcement on March 24, this “emergency library” is aimed primarily at students, “to meet our unprecedented global and immediate need for access to reading and research material”. However, many authors describe it as a copyright infringement that endangers the livelihoods of writers.
The Archives consist of books donated by libraries, including the academic collections of Phillips Academy Andover, Marygrove College, and Trent University. Some of these books are relatively new, and the authors have not given permission for their work to be posted online, causing an uproar among writers already concerned about the financial losses from the pandemic. “THIS IS A PIRATE WEBSITEsci-fi author Chuck Wendig tweeted to his 173,000 followers, sparking a controversy that spread via Twitter Publishing over the weekend.
The Authors Guild has published a blog post denouncing the Internet Archive, pointing out that most writers earn low incomes at best, and are now struggling due to canceled book tours and loss of freelance work. This is particularly relevant because much of the debate on Twitter has focused on high profile novelists, seen as wealthy people trying to take free library books from underprivileged readers. But most writers (including bestselling authors) are not wealthy, and the idea that the Internet Archive “suddenly gives up” their books is an alarming prospect.
The Authors Guild statement supports:
“IA is using a global crisis to advance a copyright ideology that violates current federal law and harms most authors. He distorted the nature and legality of the project through a deceptive advertising campaign.
However, the reality of the AI library may not be as pressing as the backlash suggests. Although the AI published these books without permission and, most importantly, does not allow authors to earn royalty fee like a regular library – the site is not the free piracy that some writers fear. It’s easy to create an account, but once you do, it’s not like you suddenly have access to a colossal archive of Kindle-quality eBooks. Books generally appear to be scanned copies (anyone’s preferred format), and once you borrow one you get 14 days of access to an Adobe file (which requires the right software) or a DAISY encrypted version – a specialized format for readers with reading difficulties. The quality is less appealing than the type of eBooks you can already borrow from a regular library.
The Internet Archive library has been around in this form for years, the only difference being that under “emergency” conditions, AI has now suspended its waiting lists for loans. So instead of waiting for someone else to return (for example) their borrowed shoddy scan that of Stephen King The brilliant, multiple people can download a two-week Adobe file at a time. And while the archive includes well-known contemporary publications, the site’s most popular books aren’t what you’d expect.
Based on pageviews, the main titles are a 2011 Prophecy Book by medium Sylvia Browne (who some people believe predicted the COVID-19 pandemic), the 1981 novel by Dean Koontz L ‘Eyeil darkness (which others believe predicted the COVID-19 pandemic), and WEB Du Bois’s 1935 political essay volume, Black Reconstruction in America. The first few pages of results are all either the kind of books you see in a college program or old obscure titles that have, in the words of novelist Darcie Wilder, “thrift store energy. “The closest thing to a recent mainstream hit is an 11-year-old volume from the Witcher series, and the 20-year-old Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. Two books by Chuck Wendig (the public face of this controversy) are currently available, and they have been viewed five and seven times, respectively, a statistic that includes people opening a preview without downloading. So while it’s completely understandable for authors to care about protecting their work, this doesn’t seem like a hotbed of piracy for recent books.
* First published: March 30, 2020, 8:55 a.m. CDT
Gavia Baker-Whitelaw is a writer for The Daily Dot, covering geek culture and fandom. Specializing in science fiction films and superheroes, she also appears as a film and television critic on BBC radio. Elsewhere, she co-hosts the pop culture podcast Overinvested. Follow her on Twitter: @Hello_Tailor