On Friday, U.S. District Judge John Koeltl ruled that the Internet Archive had infringed the copyrights of four major U.S. publishers by lending out digitally scanned copies of books in their online library. The nonprofit organization has scanned millions of print books over the past decade and lent out the digital copies for free. While many of these books are in the public domain, 3.6 million are still protected by valid copyrights, including 33,000 titles belonging to Lagardere SCA’s Hachette Book Group, News Corp’s HarperCollins Publishers, John Wiley & Sons Inc, and Bertelsmann SE & Co’s Penguin Random House.
The lawsuit was filed in 2020 by the four publishers over 127 books after the Internet Archive expanded lending during the COVID-19 pandemic, when brick-and-mortar libraries were forced to close. The Internet Archive lifted limits on how many people could borrow a book at a time, and this led to the publishers suing. The nonprofit, which partners with traditional libraries, has since returned to what it calls “controlled digital lending.”
The Internet Archive argued that its practices were protected by the doctrine of “fair use,” which allows for the unlicensed use of others’ copyrighted works in some circumstances. However, Judge Koeltl said that the Internet Archive’s digital book copies were not “transformative” enough to warrant “fair use” protection, as its ebooks merely replaced the authorized copies publishers themselves license to traditional libraries. He added that the nonprofit does not have the right to scan books and lend the digital copies en masse, although it has the right to lend the print books it has lawfully acquired.
In response to the ruling, the Internet Archive promised an appeal, arguing that the ruling “holds back access to information in the digital age, harming all readers, everywhere.” The head of the Association of American Publishers, Maria Pallante, said in a statement that the ruling “underscored the importance of authors, publishers, and creative markets in a global society.”