Two and a half years ago, the Internet Archive made a decision that pissed off a lot of writers—and embroiled it in a lawsuit that many netizens fear could weaken the archive, its finances, and its services long into the future.
In March 2020, as bookstores and libraries joined other businesses in closing their doors, the Internet Archive tried a virtual solution. It had long offered an Open Library, which contains a massive number of scanned books that can be checked out online by users one at a time. In response to the pandemic, it temporarily lifted limits on the number of scanned copies available for checkout as well as the length of time a given book could be checked out, temporarily becoming a “National Emergency Library.” The plan was to conclude the project by June 30, 2020.
As Slate reported at the time, prominent writers including Chuck Wendig, N.K. Jemisin, and Colson Whitehead spoke out against the National Emergency Library; many called it “piracy” and condemned the archive for allegedly stealing from creators. More than two months after the National Emergency Library kicked off, Hachette Book Group, HarperCollins, Penguin Random House, and John Wiley & Sons (all members of the Association of American Publishers) sued the Internet Archive, alleging “willful mass copyright infringement.” The publishers alleged that the archive had made 127 of their books available to the public without permission, thus infringing upon publishers’ intellectual property rights and eating into their profits during a moment of economic turbulence. In response, the archive ended the National Emergency Library a little earlier than planned, on June 11, 2020.