With one of the strictest paywalls in the news industry (you can’t even view an article if you block adverts), the Washington Post takes getting paid for their work pretty damn seriously.
Unfortunately, they do not extend that attitude to other people’s work. The WaPo published an uncredited editorial on Tuesday on the lawsuit that four publishers filed last Monday against the Internet Archive. This editorial stopped one step short of calling for actively pirating books.
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.
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.
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.
If this makes you furious, and you’re not quite sure why, it’s because the argument is juvenile – seriously, it’s like something you would hear from a teenager.
The WaPo’s position can be boiled down to “because libraries have limited funds, it’s okay to just not pay for licenses”. That’s the kind of argument a 12-year-old would make when caught stealing candy bars, only here it is being used to justify a massive piracy operation.
If libraries don’t have enough money then the solution isn’t to go out and pirate books; the solution is to raise funds for libraries.
In the case of the National Emergency Library, the IA could have found an internet billionaire to fund the endeavor. Bill Gates, for example, is currently whitewashing his reputation through philanthropy; he could have put up $100 million without blinking.
Can you imagine the discussion we would be having now if all the copies were being paid for using retail prices? This would no longer be a fight over piracy; we’d be talking about compulsory licensing for libraries and whether libraries should be forced to only buy the digital content in their market, as opposed to the retail market.
Publishers are very lucky that the IA didn’t make this fight about compulsory licensing because that argument would have a whole lot more support among creators, pundits, and the public. That would have been an argument that the IA would win hands down.
The National Emergency Library, on the other hand, is shaping up to be a very public loss for the IA.