Bay Area free digital library at center of ongoing legal battle with publishers

Melanie Woodrow Image
Tuesday, April 4, 2023
Bay Area free digital library at center of ongoing legal battle
U.S. District Court grants publishers' motion for summary judgment against San Francisco's Internet Archive in potential landmark case.

SAN FRANCISCO (KGO) -- A potential landmark case that could impact the way we read books is unfolding in the Bay Area. The Internet Archive is a San Francisco-based nonprofit digital library that scans and lends out millions of digital books for free. ABC7 News I-Team Reporter Melanie Woodrow got a rare look inside the Richmond warehouse where physical copies of the books are housed and interviewed IA's founder about his legal battle.

Inside a Richmond warehouse, Internet Archive founder Brewster Kahle estimates there are one million books.

The books are inside boxes that are inside shipping containers.

"Libraries have always been important when we've had anything published whether it's on manuscript or parchment - palm leaves, paper and digital is no different," said Brewster Kahle, digital librarian and Internet Archive founder.

Kahle founded the Internet Archive in 1996.

IA is potentially best known for the "Wayback Machine" - an archive of every public webpage on the World Wide Web.

IA also scans print books that have been donated or that it has purchased and makes the corresponding eBooks publicly available for free as part of its online lending library.

"The idea is to have a library system that is open to all," said Kahle.

MORE: California library cardholders can check out free passes to state parks

An idea that doesn't sit well with some publishers and authors.

In June of 2020, four publishers filed a copyright infringement lawsuit against IA, saying the website distributes illegally scanned books without any license or payment to the authors or publishers.

According to Kahle, IA works from what's known as a "Controlled Digital Lending" model, only loaning digitally the number of copies it physically has at any one time.

To make more copies available for digital lending, IA partners with libraries which Kahle says leverage IA's technology to loan out more copies.

According to court documents, during the COVID-19 pandemic which closed libraries nationwide, IA launched what it called a National Emergency Library and stopped its controlled lending, allowing up to 10,000 people at a time to borrow each eBook on its website. A point Kahle strongly disputes.

"Is that true?" ABC7 News I-Team reporter Melanie Woodrow asked Kahle.

"No," he responded. "No way, there was no way, we watched it very carefully," he continued.

IA ended its National Emergency Library, but continues its controlled digital lending today.

MORE: Free 24/7 online tutoring for CA students; $254M grant to improve libraries, Gov. Newsom announces

"Is that fair to the publishers? Is it fair to the authors," Woodrow asked.

"The publishers and the authors get paid just like they are selling books. We buy these books at retail or somebody does often other libraries and they donate those books to the Internet Archive," said Kahle.

Authors Guild Outgoing President Douglas Preston doesn't see it that way.

"Controlled digital lending is basically book piracy," said Preston.

"I really compare that to somebody who throws a brick through a bookstore window and then passes out the books for free and then expects to be congratulated for his generosity," said Preston.

"All legitimate libraries buy licenses from publishers in order to lend out eBooks and from those licenses authors get compensated," he continued.

On March 24, a U.S. District Court judge granted the four publishers' motion for summary judgement and denied Internet Archive's motion for summary judgment, writing in part, "Even full enforcement of a one-to-one owned-to-loaned ratio, however, would not excuse IA's reproduction of the Works in Suit"

"I'm disappointed," said Kahle.

MORE: School library book bans are seen as targeting LGBTQ+ content

In a statement, the Association of American Publishers wrote in part, "We hope the opinion will prove educational to the defendant and anyone else who finds public laws inconvenient to their own interests."

"I'm curious if you are to books what LimeWire and Napster were to music," asked Woodrow.

"Not at all. What the internet archive is is a library," said Kahle.

Kahle says IA will continue fighting and plans to appeal the decision.

He has the support of the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the Authors Alliance out of Berkeley, which seeks to advance the interests of authors who want to serve the public good by sharing their creations broadly.

The case's outcome could have far-reaching effects for any other library operating under a controlled digital lending model and could impact how readily available books are online.

Take a look at more stories by the ABC7 News I-Team.

Now Streaming 24/7 Click Here

If you're on the ABC7 News app, click here to watch live