Robin Ashenden

The Internet Archive’s troubles are bad news for book lovers

(Credit: Getty images)

The Internet Archive (, a San Francisco-based virtual lending library, is one of the quiet wonders of the modern world. A digital collection of seven million books and nearly 15 million audio-recordings, it was ambitiously intended by its founder Brewster Kahle – a member of the internet ‘Hall of Fame’ – to be a kind of online ‘Library of Alexandria’. The IA loans out its titles free of charge, the main beneficiaries being those who can’t get to a real ‘brick and mortar’ library – the housebound, those living far from cities, or people in need of rare books their own local library doesn’t stock and can’t get hold of quickly enough. It also has a ‘Way Back’ function that allows you to search for downloads, month by month, of defunct or disappeared websites (with a staggering 735 billion web-pages in its database).

Over its 26-year history it has partnered with multiple institutions and inherited the stock of numerous closing or downsizing libraries, scanning each inherited book page by laborious page, then uploading it to its database. The IA’s ethos is simple: having legally acquired the license for a hard-copy book, it then lends out its scanned copy to only one reader at a time, just like a normal high street library. These rules were relaxed only during the Covid lockdown, when at the outset over 100 closed libraries signed support for a temporary ‘National Emergency Library’. This allowed the IA to lend out extra copies. making it a lifeline for legions of readers with time on their hands and no bookstores or libraries to spend it in. 

The future of the Internet Archive looks under threat

The Internet Archive, in short, is an institution so transformative you remember where you were and what you were doing when you first came across it. In my case, it was sitting in a hotel room in Yakutsk, the coldest inhabited city in the world, needing a specific quote for an article I was writing about the place. The book – an obscure one – wasn’t published on Kindle and there was likely no hard copy for several thousand miles. Finally, without much hope, I went to the internet to hunt for it. A few minutes later, having signed up to IA and made a couple of clicks, I had the book and the quote on the screen in front of me. Problem solved. 

Soon, as a travelling journalist, I wondered how I’d got by without it. Writing an article on a particular subject, but countries away from the nearest English-language library? Wherever I found myself, the IA would offer me an ample range of books on the topic, including ones I didn’t even know about. Sometimes a scanned text would be borrowable for an hour, sometimes two weeks. Occasionally it would be checked out and I’d have to wait for it as at any lending library, yet there were usually two or more copies for loan. The Archive had numerous scanned titles that weren’t available anywhere as e-books, allowing me to downsize my hard-copy library (it had been idling in alphabetised sacks in an expensive storage space in any case) and to feel a measure of confidence that I could both travel light and do my job anywhere, any time. 

If it all seemed too good to last, that may very well be the case. In July 2020, immediately after the Covid lockdown, four publishers – Hachette, HarperCollins, Wiley and Penguin Random House – decided to bring a major lawsuit against the Internet Archive, claiming it had ‘infringed their copyright’, potentially cost their companies millions of dollars and was a threat to their businesses. Last month the New York court found – predictably – in the publishers’ favour, rejecting the IA’s defence of ‘fair use’, and ruling that ‘although IA 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.’ 

Increasingly, the future of the Internet Archive looks under threat. What the four publishers are demanding and seem set legally to enforce is, according to Kahle, the destruction of around ‘4 million digitised files… This would be a book burning on the scale of the Library of Alexandria… If digital learners have no access to millions of books, aren’t they effectively disappeared?’

One can see the publishers’ point – lower revenues mean less money for authors and fewer funds to invest in new writing. Yet there is no evidence, according to IA’s senior policy counsel Lila Bailey, that their lending policy has caused ‘one dollar of harm’ to the publishing houses. Hachette director of sales Alison Lazarus, Bailey reports, admitted under oath that the notion of such losses was merely ‘speculative.’ An executive from Penguin Random House, when quizzed about lost profits, admitted ‘I don’t have any evidence.’ Chantal Restivo-Alessi, chief digital officer at Harper Collins, seemed to confirm this: ‘There’s no factual analysis. It’s just one inference one could make.’

So what is motivating these publishers in their desire to strike at the Archive, if not money? One can only guess, but a clue may lie in the recently updated versions of works by writers like Ian Fleming, Agatha Christie, Roald Dahl and P.G. Wodehouse. Unlike hard copies, digital versions are sold to libraries on a licence basis and must be regularly repurchased, allowing publishers to make revisions right across the board and remove earlier editions from circulation altogether.

‘In electronic form they can change all books in all libraries all at once and irreversibly without permission,’ says Kahle. ‘This is dangerous. It is not hypothetical, it is happening.’  With the future of genuine libraries looking increasingly shaky (nearly 800 have closed down in Britain alone in the past decade) and digital borrowing correspondingly on the rise, this licensing scheme has chilling implications for readers in search of an undoctored text. Also for a reading future in which their data is not open to being harvested and every turn of a page not captured by the big corporations. 

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In such a Brave New World – one which the great majority of us neither desired, requested nor were ever consulted about – the Internet Archive has become the bulwark against censorship that, until recently, most readers hadn’t even known they needed. Its scanned copies – a record of what a book looked like at the time it went to print, freely available to anyone – are more crucial than ever. 

The IA now has plans to appeal last month’s ruling. Trapped as they are between the demands of major publishing houses and those of the IA’s loyal (and massive) readership, one hopes the appeal courts come to a measured – and public-spirited – decision. Libraries, Kahle says, ‘need to continue to support publishers, authors and the public by buying, preserving, and lending books. If we don’t, we go into a very dark Orwellian world. That is what is at stake.’

Written by
Robin Ashenden
Robin Ashenden is founder and ex-editor of the Central and Eastern European London Review. He is currently writing a novel about Solzhenitsyn, Khrushchev’s Thaw and the Hungarian Uprising.

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