Senator Tillis Angry At The Internet Archive For Helping People Read During A Pandemic; Archive Explains Why That’s Wrong

A few weeks ago, we wrote about the misguided freakout by (mainly) publishers and some authors over the Internet Archive’s decision to launch the National Emergency Library during the COVID-19 pandemic, to help all of us who are stuck at home be able to digitally access books that remain in locked libraries around the country. A key point I made in that post: most (not all, but most) of the criticisms applied to the NEL project could equally apply to regular libraries. And perhaps that’s why hundreds of libraries have come out in support of the project, even as those attacking the project insist that it’s not an attack on libraries.

Either way, it was only a matter of time before publishers got their lapdogs in Congress to start making noise, and first out of the gate was Senator Thom Tillis, who is already deep into his attempt to make copyright law worse, and who last week sent a letter to the Internet Archive’s Brewster Kahle that reads very much like it was written by book publishers. First it gets high and mighty about how the pandemic has “shown the critical value of copyrighted works to the public interest” which is just a weird way to phrase things. The fact that something valuable is covered by copyright does not automatically mean that copyright is helpful or valuable for that situation. Then it gets to the point:

I am not aware of any measure under copyright law that permits a user of copyrighted works to unilaterally create an emergency copyright act. Indeed, I am deeply concerned that your “Library” is operating outside the boundaries of the copyright law that Congress has enacted and alone has jurisdiction to amend.

A few days later, Kahle responded in a detailed and thorough letter to Tillis. It points out that the Internet Archive is well-established and recognized by the state of California as a library, and that it has already shown that it has a legal right to digitize books. And then goes on to explain that the point of the NEL is to help enable Tillis’ own constituents to access to the books that their tax dollars paid for while they’re locked up collecting dust inside libraries that are closed during the pandemic.

The National Emergency Library was developed to address a temporary and significant need in our communities — for the first time in our nation’s history, the entire physical library system is offline and unavailable. Your constituents have paid for millions of books they currently cannot access. According to National Public Library survey data from 2018-2019, North Carolina’s public libraries house more than fifteen million print book volumes in three-hundred twenty-three branches across the State. Because those branches are now closed and their books are unavailable, the massive public investment paid for by tax-paying citizens is unavailable to the very people who funded it. This also goes for public school libraries and academic libraries at community colleges, public colleges and universities as well. The National Emergency Library was envisioned to meet this challenge of providing digital access to print materials, helping teachers, students and communities gain access to books while their schools and libraries are closed.

It also highlights something else that many had missed: the NEL does not include any books published within the last five years — which is pretty important, since the commercial value of a book usually exists in the first couple years after publishing. Indeed, a recent study highlighted how the vast, vast, vast majority of sales tends to come soon after a book is published and then sales decline rapidly. So the argument that the NEL is somehow taking away from author income is already somewhat questionable.

And, indeed, the Archive is currently seeing evidence that suggests the NEL is not actually impacting author earnings in any significant way:

In an early analysis of the use we are seeing what we expected: 90% of the books borrowed were published more than ten years ago, two-thirds were published during the twentieth century. The number of books being checked out and read is comparable to that of a town of about 30,000 people. Further, about 90% of people borrowing the book only looked at it for 30 minutes. These usage patterns suggest that perhaps that patrons may be using the checked-out book for fact checking or research, but we suspect a large number of people are browsing the book in a way similar to browsing library shelves.

The Internet Archive has also been highlighting case studies of teachers and students helped out by the NEL.

Kahle also explains to Tillis how he’s wrong to say that copyright law does not allow this kind of lending. It’s called fair use.

You raise the question of how this comports with copyright law. Fortunately, we do not need an “emergency copyright act” because the fair use doctrine, codified in the Copyright Act, provides flexibility to libraries and others to adjust to changing circumstances. As a result, libraries can and are meeting the needs of their patrons during this crisis in a variety of ways. The Authors Guild, the leading critic of the National Emergency Library, has been incorrect in their assessment of the scope and flexibility of the fair use doctrine in the past and this is another instance where we respectfully disagree.

The reference regarding the Authors Guild being wrong about fair use refers to its years-long fight to stop libraries from digitizing books, which resulted in a massive loss for the Guild’s ridiculous interpretation of copyright and fair use.

In the end there are a bunch of important points here: even if Tillis is right that copyright is somehow proving its value in a pandemic (and he’s not), that doesn’t change the simple fact that this library is enabling people who cannot check out physical books from their locked community libraries to at least be able to access those books while remaining safe at home. The Internet Archive has legal scans of these books, and hundreds of libraries are supporting this effort. While it’s true, as some authors and publishers highlight, that there are official ebooks for some books, many (especially older) books do not have them at all — and those include lots of books that are commonly read in classrooms. And, as we pointed out last time, in cases where there are official ebooks, almost anyone would prefer to get those copies, because they are much easier to read and designed to be read on a reading device (specialized reading device, tablet, or phone) as compared to the NEL scans, which are straight scans of the book pages.

No matter what, it’s a really bad look for Tillis to stomp around complaining that his constituents might actually be able to read books that are currently locked up in libraries. Remember that the entire intent of copyright law in the first place, and the subtitle of the US’s very first copyright law, was that it be to enable learning. The Internet Archive is trying to help push forward that clear goal of copyright law… while Senator Tillis seems to want to stop it.

In the end, there’s very little “there” there to the complaints about this project. It’s difficult to see how it’s harming author revenue in any real way, but it is clearly helping schools and students while the libraries and books they normally use are unavailable. And, there are strong arguments for why this is perfectly legal under copyright law — and if the claim is that we should wait until that’s absolutely proven in court, well, that kinda misses the whole point of helping out during a pandemic.

As professor Brian Frye recently wrote about all of this: “When you find yourself complaining about libraries, you might want to think twice about your priorities.” And I’d say that counts double in the midst of a pandemic.

Techdirt.