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Our Open Letter to Internet Archive to Shut Down the So-Called “National Emergency Library”

Below is the open letter the Authors Guild sent to Internet Archive and Brewster Kahle in May 2020, asking them to immediately shut down the National Emergency Library.

Dear Mr. Kahle and the Internet Archive Board of Directors:
The undersigned authors, agents, and their friends and supporters demand that Internet Archive remove the hundreds of thousands of in-copyright books that you have made freely available online without permission through your illegal National Emergency Library.

Let’s be clear: Internet Archive’s so-called “National Emergency Library” is not a real library. Real libraries license the electronic books they circulate, and authors receive payments from those licenses. Real libraries do not circulate unauthorized copies. Real libraries care about authors as much as they do about promoting knowledge and literacy.

Let’s be even more clear: Internet Archive’s prior practice of providing access through Open Library to one reader at a time per copy is itself infringing of most in-copyright books—and illegal. Now, by declaring a spurious “copyright emergency” and making a massive trove of copyrighted books available for free without any restrictions, Internet Archive has demonstrated a shocking disrespect for the rule of law— the cornerstone of our civil, democratic society—at a time when we most need it to prevail. You cloak your illegal scanning and distribution of books behind the pretense of magnanimously giving people access to them. But giving away what is not yours is simply stealing, and there is nothing magnanimous about that. Authors and publishers—the rights owners who legally can give their books away—are already working to provide electronic access to books to libraries and the people who need them. We do not need Internet Archive to give our works away for us.

In response to Sen. Tillis’s letter expressing concern about the legality of using copyrighted works without permission, you assert that Internet Archive understands “that authors are being impacted by the global pandemic” and that it has been “engaged in a dialog with authors around the National Emergency Library.” This is patently false. You have made no effort to acknowledge that thousands of authors are protesting the illegality of scanning and distributing their works without permission. You also disingenuously claim that Open Library and the National Emergency Library fall under fair use, even though there is nothing in the history of copyright law that would suggest in any manner that copying and distributing entire books to the world without permission, even if not for profit, even during times of crisis, is fair use. It is a ludicrous claim, as you well know.

Books exist because authors write them, and good books take a good deal of hard work and time. Authors need to earn a living to be able to write, and they deserve to be paid for their work like any other worker. The pandemic is severely impacting authors and booksellers. Bookstores and libraries have closed, and book sales are down. The freelance writing assignments and speaking engagements that many authors rely on to supplement their income are unavailable, and yet authors are not eligible for traditional unemployment. (Indeed, thus far, they have even been excluded from the Pandemic Unemployment Insurance meant to assist freelancers, and the Authors Guild is actively lobbying to correct that.)

Mr. Kahle, to say that you “understand that authors are being impacted” while nevertheless making their books freely available is adding insult to injury.

We, the undersigned, demand that you stop this charade.

In memoriam of Deirdre Bair (1935–2020), our dear friend and Authors Guild council member who sparked this call for action to all authors just days before she passed away.