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Here’s what could happen to your digital books if the Internet Archive loses its lawsuit

A person is reaching for a book on a high shelf in a library with many books.
The San Francisco Public Library staff categorize and organize books at the main branch on Aug. 26, 2022. | Camille Cohen/The Standard | Source: Camille Cohen/The Standard

The Internet Archive, a digital library operating out of a former church in San Francisco’s Richmond District, has found itself at the center of a fight over the digital ownership of library materials. 

In 2020, a group of publishers sued the nonprofit—perhaps best known for its Wayback Machine, which resurrects dead tweets and captures defunct websites—over the right to scan books and loan them out digitally, known as “controlled digital lending.”

The case brought into question the rights of libraries to digitize books as a means of lending them out. While services may lend out publisher-licensed books, library advocates raise the alarm over books that won’t be accessed through those services nor through controlled digital lending.    

Last month, a judge sided with the publishers. The Internet Archive’s founder, Brewster Kahle, called it “a blow for libraries, readers and authors” while publishers cheered the ruling. 

“In celebrating the opinion, we also thank the thousands of public libraries across the country that serve their communities everyday through lawful e-book licenses,” said Maria Pallante, president and CEO of the Association of American Publishers in a statement. “We hope the opinion will prove educational to the defendant and anyone else who finds public laws inconvenient to their own interests.”

Though an appeal is weeks away, the nonprofit is rallying librarians and supporters for the “digital future of libraries” on Saturday, in collaboration with internet freedom advocacy group Fight for the Future. 

“There’s an important inflection point when it comes to how people consume books,” Lia Holland, a spokesperson for Fight for the Future, told The Standard. “Libraries in this situation are understandably uncomfortable with the complete rollback of their rights to own or preserve [materials]. Publishers have sued to stop them from doing this practice, which is the last option for digital ownership, period.”

The San Francisco Public Library said the ruling will not impact its patrons, as its existing digital collections are accessed through systems like Hoopla, Axis 360, Overdrive and Enki. Its partnership with the Internet Archive is mostly about historic San Francisco documents that are not subject to this legal challenge, spokesperson Kate Patterson said. 

But Chris Freeland, director of open libraries at the Internet Archive, counters that SFPL is very much affected by the court case. Books not included in the commercial e-book services that libraries use could be lost to history if libraries don’t have rights to own them through other digital means.

One example the Internet Archive highlights is the discovery of a copy of Makeshift, a 1940 novel about a Jewish woman’s escape from Nazi Germany. There are only 19 copies in existence, and the author’s son can only access the text on the nonprofit’s database.   

As with the occasionally arbitrary availability of a given film on streaming platforms, readers may not be able to count on e-book titles remaining in a particular digital library service—especially as book bans rage across the country.  

“All libraries are affected by this decision, because there are millions of books published in the 20th century that are accessible through controlled digital lending that will never have a commercially available e-book,” Freeland told The Standard. “This fight is much bigger than the future of the Internet Archive. We don’t want libraries to be hollowed out.”