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US Judge Rules Against Internet Archive in Copyright Lawsuit

By Julia Fitzpatrick


Four US publishers have won a lawsuit against the digital library Internet Archive. Hachette Book Group, HarperCollins, John Wiley & Sons and Penguin Random House sued Internet Archive for “mass copyright infringement” during the COVID-19 pandemic. On Friday 24 March, US District Court Judge John G. Koeltl sided with the publishers, ruling that Internet Archive’s unauthorised digital lending practices violate copyright law.


Although some of Internet Archive’s books are in the public domain, 3.6 million of them are protected by existing copyrights. Internet Archive justifies its distribution of copyrighted titles as “controlled digital lending” – temporarily lending one copy of a book at a time rather than allowing mass downloading. Internet Archive defends its practices by the doctrine of fair use, saying the platform’s goal is “universal access to all knowledge.”


Photo Credit: kalw.com

Much of the case was centred around the National Emergency Library, a temporary online collection which Internet Archive developed in 2020 to lend digital books while physical libraries were closed due to lockdowns. Suspending Internet Archive’s standard policy of controlled digital lending, the National Emergency Library allowed multiple users to borrow the same title at the same time. The four publishers sued Internet Archive in 2020 over 127 titles included in the National Emergency Library.


Ruling in favour of the publishers, Judge Koeltl said that Internet Archive’s practices are not authorised under the doctrine of fair use because “IA’s wholesale copying and unauthorised lending of digital copies of the Publishers’ print books does not transform the use of the books, and IA profits from exploiting the copyrighted material without paying the customary price.” The fact that Internet Archive had purchased the original print copies of the titles was irrelevant because “publishers do not price print books with the expectation that they will be distributed in both print and digital formats.” Therefore, acknowledging that Internet Archive retains the right to scan and lend books which are in the public domain, Koeltl denied the legality of distributing copyrighted titles without authorisation.


The Authors Guild praised the ruling, tweeting that “scanning & lending books w/out permission or compensation is NOT fair use – it is theft”. Maria Pallante, President of the Association of American Publishers, commented that the ruling “underscores the importance of authors, publishers, and creative markets in a global society.” Internet Archive will appeal the ruling, which it says “holds back access to information in the digital age, harming all readers everywhere.”

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