A federal judge has ruled against the Internet Archive in its high-profile case against a group of four US publishers led by Hachette Book Group. Per Reuters, Judge John G. Koeltl declared on Friday the nonprofit had infringed on the group’s copyrights by lending out digitally scanned copies of their books.
The lawsuit originated from the Internet Archive’s decision to launch the “National Emergency Library” during the early days of the pandemic. The program saw the organization offer more than 1.4 million free ebooks, including copyrighted works, in response to libraries worldwide closing their doors due to coronavirus lockdown measures.
Before March 2020, the Internet Archive’s Open Library program operated under what’s known as a “controlled digital lending” system, meaning there was often a waitlist to borrow a book from its collection. When the pandemic hit, the Internet Archive lifted those restrictions to make it easier for people to access reading material while stuck at home. The Copyright Alliance was quick to take issue with the effort. And in June 2020, Hachette, as well as HarperCollins, Penguin Random House and John Wiley & Sons, sued The Internet Archive, accusing the organization of enabling “willful mass copyright infringement.” That same month, the Internet Archive shuttered the National Emergency Program early.
Going into this week’s trial, the Internet Archive argued the initiative was protected by the principle of Fair Use, which allows the unlicensed use of copyrighted works under some circumstances. As The Verge notes, HathiTrust, an offshoot of the Google Books Search project, successfully used a similar argument in 2014 to fend off a legal challenge from The Authors Guild. However, Judge Koeltl rejected the Internet Archive’s stance, declaring “there is nothing transformative” about lending unauthorized copies of books. "Although [the Internet Archive] has the right to lend print books it lawfully acquired, it does not have the right to scan those books and lend the digital copies en masse," he wrote. Maria Pallante, the president and CEO of the Association of American Publishers, said the ruling “underscored the importance of authors, publishers, and creative markets in a global society."
On Saturday, the Internet Archive said it would appeal the decision. “Libraries are more than the customer service departments for corporate database products. For democracy to thrive at global scale, libraries must be able to sustain their historic role in society — owning, preserving, and lending book,” the nonprofit wrote in a blog post. “This ruling is a blow for libraries, readers, and authors and we plan to appeal it.”