Copyright Law

Internet Archive's scanning and lending of books violates copyrights, federal judge rules

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The Internet Archive servers at the headquarters in San Francisco. Photo by Jason “Textfiles” Scott, CC-BY-2.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

A federal judge in Manhattan, New York City, has granted summary judgment to four publishers that sued the nonprofit Internet Archive for scanning copyrighted books and lending them out in digital form.

U.S. District Judge John G. Koeltl of the Southern District of New York ruled March 24 that the archive’s program constituted copyright infringement, and its digital lending “remains squarely beyond fair use.”

Initially, the Internet Archive abided by a one-to-one loaned ratio. That meant that the number of permitted simultaneous checkouts of any book equaled the number of printed books owned by the archive. Participating libraries also offered one copy each of their digital books through the archive.

After the COVID-19 pandemic closed libraries, the Internet Archive launched a National Emergency Library that lifted the one-to-one loaned ratio. Instead, up to 10,000 readers could borrow any digital book on the archive website.

The expansion spurred the June 2020 lawsuit by the Hachette Book Group, HarperCollins Publishers, Penguin Random House and John Wiley & Sons Inc. After the suit was filed, the archive ended its National Emergency Library, according to coverage by Law360, Publishers Weekly and NPR.

Koeltl said even a one-to-one loaned ratio would not excuse the Internet Archive’s reproduction of copyrighted books.

“At bottom, IA’s fair use defense rests on the notion that lawfully acquiring a copyrighted print book entitles the recipient to make an unauthorized copy and distribute it in place of the print book, so long as it does not simultaneously lend the print book,” Koeltl wrote. “But no case or legal principle supports that notion.”

Koeltl added that the Internet Archive could still scan and distribute books that have entered the public domain.

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