Last month, I wrote about the Internet Archive’s Open Library project, which has been scanning donated print books, creating PDFs and EPUBs from the scans, and placing the scans and the digitized versions online for public borrowing–all without seeking permission from authors.
Although the IA describes these books as being “mostly from the 20th century” and “largely not available either physically or digitally”, numerous books in the Open Library collection are recently published, in-copyright, and commercially available. SFWA is among several writers’ groups that considers the Open Library project to be not library lending, but direct infringement of authors’ copyrights.
On hearing about Open Library, I of course checked it out to see if any of my books were included. I found four, each in multiple formats: a scan of the print book, a PDF (the photographic scan rendered page by page), an EPUB (an OCR conversion full of errors–weird characters, garbled words, headers included in the text, and the like), and a DAISY (an encrypted format for the visually impaired that requires a special key to de-crypt). All of these books are currently “in print” and available for sale.
Here’s how my books appeared on Open Library, with the blue “Borrow” buttons indicating their availability for borrowing.
Passion Blue has a yellow “Join Waitlist” button because I borrowed and downloaded it to Adobe Digital Editions, to see what the digitizations looked like and also to check whether the borrows expired after 14 days, as promised. (They did.)
One of the questions that has concerned SFWA and other writers’ groups is how the IA responds to DMCA notices. So on January 1, I sent one for Passion Blue.
No response. On January 9, I sent another.
Still nothing. On January 25, I sent a third DMCA notice.
Well, this was annoying, especially since, in a January 24 post to the Internet Archive blog, IA founder Brewster Kahle promised “prompt action” on DMCA requests. But hey, maybe the IA folks were just swamped with takedown notices and were working through a big backlog. I resolved to be patient.
Then, on January 27, author Virginia Anderson alerted me to her blog post about her experience with Open Library and the IA. Like me, she’d found one of her books available, had sent DMCA notices, and had heard nothing back. Frustrated, she posted a comment on the IA blog, indicating that she’d be seeking legal advice if she didn’t get a reply (the IA blog is moderated, and Ms. Anderson’s comment never appeared publicly). Within 36 hours, the IA responded in email, and the digitized versions of her book were taken down.
Well, I thought, I can do that. So on January 28, I hopped on over to the IA blog and posted this comment:
I made a screenshot because I was pretty sure it wouldn’t be let through, and I was right. However, within 24 hours I got an email identical to the one Virginia Anderson received, ostensibly in response to my third DMCA notice.
On checking Open Library, I found not just that Passion Blue was gone, but the other three books had been taken down as well. (The encrypted DAISY versions are still available, but I have no quarrel with that; many publishing contracts allow publishers to grant rights to non-profit organizations that serve the visually impaired, without compensation to the author).
So why do I feel like I’ve been blown off? After all, I got what I wanted: withdrawal from public lending of unauthorized scans and digitizations of my books. Shouldn’t that be enough?
Well, no. Look, I get that people have different views of copyright. My interest in retaining tight control of my intellectual property conflicts with others’ vision of universal libraries and unfettered access to information. I’m fine with that. There are laws that enable me to take action if I feel my rights have been infringed, and I have no problem using them.
What pisses me off is how unprofessionally the IA handled this (and Virginia Anderson’s experience makes it clear that I’m not alone). Over the space of nearly a month, I sent three DMCA notices, none of which got a response; but when I left a snippy blog comment, the IA got back to me within 24 hours. Clearly the IA is not too busy to take quick action when it wants to. It also irks me that, when the IA did respond, it didn’t acknowledge my DMCA notices (other than the subject line), or any obligation to act on them. Instead, it provided a paragraph of exposition about DAISY, informed me that there’s “no other access available” to Passion Blue as if that had been the case all along, and finished with a plug for its philanthropic mission. Basically, “no issue here, move right along”–while tacitly acknowledging that there is an issue by hastily removing public access not just to Passion Blue but to the three books I didn’t ask them to take down.
Really, it’s almost childish. The IA does important work that’s worth supporting. It may not agree with me and others that Open Library is an overreach–but in my opinion, the way it has dealt with me and with Virginia Anderson is not worthy of its mission.
Has anyone had a similar experience? Or gotten a more prompt and professional response? I’d be interested to know.
One question that often comes up when discussing this kind of infringement: Brick-and-mortar libraries lend out books for free. How is Open Library different? A few reasons.
– Brick-and-mortar libraries buy the books they lend, a separate purchase for each format (hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook, etc.). The author gets a royalty on these purchases. The IA seeks donations, and lends those. Authors get nothing.
– Brick-and-mortar libraries lend only the books they purchase. They don’t use those books to create new, un-permissioned lending formats. That’s exactly what the IA does; moreover, one of its additional lending formats is riddled with OCR errors that make it a chore to read. Apart from permission issues, this is not how I want my books to be represented to the public.
– People who advocate for looser copyright laws often paint copyright defenders as greedy or mercenary, as if defending copyright were only about money. It’s worth remembering another important principle of copyright: control. Copyright gives authors not just the right to profit from their intellectual property, but to control its use. That, as much as or even more than money, is the principle the IA is violating with its Open Library project.