In recent years, corporations have successfully lobbied Congress to vastly extend the terms of copyright, to the end of preventing icons like Mickey Mouse or Batman from ever slipping into the public domain. (The year 2024, when Mickey is set to leave Disney’s control, beckons nevertheless.) That context often seemed to give the digital liberators the higher moral ground; they were encouraging new creative efforts as opposed to greedily protecting assets.
Then the tide began to turn. As tech upstarts grew into behemoths, the word digital came to represent a different set of corporations protecting their assets. YouTube started looking less like a repository for fresh creative works and more like another cable TV system.
The Internet Archive is based in San Francisco, but it is certainly no behemoth. Rather, it’s a throwback to the start of the millennium, when it was still easy to believe that digital tools could make the world a better place. Think of the miracle that is the Archive’s Wayback Machine, which stores copies of web pages so that we can still view work that has disappeared, either because the sites are defunct or because someone has made edits.
The Archive’s pitch, from the start, was to reinvent the library for the digital age. Physical books—including not-for-sale advance copies of titles such as Sag Harbor—arrive as donations, and then are scanned and made available for “checkout” one at a time. They have a due date too. This is “controlled digital lending,” a legally contested framework based on the idea that owning a book entails the right to loan it out.
Controlled digital lending takes advantage of some of the magical qualities of digitized books (the potential for their near-immediate delivery via the internet, for example) while swearing off others (the ease with which they can be copied and shared indiscriminately). Until, that is, the pandemic arrived. Having declared itself an emergency library, the Archive dropped the restrictions on how many copies of a book could be checked out at once or for how long. Any borrowed volume is now due June 30, or when the national emergency has ended, whichever comes later.
The thinking was clear: Traditional libraries have shut down, and emergencies don’t wait for copyright clearance. In announcing the change, Kahle couldn’t hide his pride at the groundwork his organization had laid—a strategic book reserve that he was releasing to the public. “This was our dream for the original internet coming to life,” he wrote, “the library at everyone’s fingertips.”
In a follow-up post on April 7, Kahle was more measured about the new library rules, almost apologetic. “We moved in ‘internet time’ and the speed and swiftness of our solution surprised some and caught others off guard,” he wrote, saying that the Archive would add staff members to help authors remove their books from the emergency library, as Whitehead has done. Of course, whether authors have to opt in or opt out is a central issue, and one that can’t be smoothed over with more staff members. If the Archive can’t, by default, treat its scan of your book as its own copy to loan, its collection will dwindle to almost nothing—a tiny assortment of works by authors who deliberately choose to distribute their work without compensation, out of a selfless desire to educate the world during a crisis.
The fact that so many prominent authors have lashed out against this idea speaks to the precarious times we live in. The pandemic not only threatens the economy, but also shows the dangers of the gig economy promoted by Silicon Valley and others. The business model of many tech companies—whether it’s Amazon, Facebook, Instacart, or Uber—is to control the digital means of assigning work and demand a cut from each transaction. We’ve seen what that means in practice: If your work for a ride-sharing service suddenly dries up, you won’t necessarily have an easy time qualifying for unemployment benefits.