Why is New Zealand’s National Library Declaring War on Authors?

by Hugh Stephens — 15 November 2021

At first blush, one would think that a natural symbiotic link would exist between authors, publishers, librarians and readers. After all they are all part of what I could call the literature ecosystem, the chain of content that leads from the creation of a work to its dissemination to its consumption, either for entertainment or learning. Librarians love books, so why wouldn’t they love the creators of books? But it’s not all that unusual to find authors and publishers on one side of an issue and the librarians on the other, as is currently happening in New Zealand. In this case, it involves an ill-conceived plan announced by the National Library of New Zealand to donate some 600,000 works it no longer wants to the Internet Archive (IA) in San Francisco for digitization as part of the Archive’s “Open Library”.

Another author-publisher/librarian split famously happened last year in the US when the Internet Archive decided to unilaterally launch its so-called “National Emergency Library” (NEL) in which it removed all lending restrictions on the books it had digitized, and began to freely loan out unlimited digital copies on the grounds that many libraries were closed or had restricted access because of COVID. This move was applauded by the American Library Association (ALA). On March 24, 2020, the same day the National Emergency Library was announced, the ALA tweeted;

“@InternetArchive has announced the creation of a new National Emergency Library with over 1.4 million books available to borrow. With libraries across the country closed, we appreciate IA filling this need.”

The ALA’s support was initially echoed by others such as National Public Radio which, on March 26, published an laudatory piece calling the National Emergency Library a “compelling alternative” (to closed public libraries). It wasn’t long before the media pendulum began to swing the other way, however, as authors’ associations such as the Authors Guild and the American Association of Publishers issued critical statements, accusing the Internet Archive of copyright violation and an “unlawful, and opportunistic attack on the rights of authors and publishers”. Writing in Medium, Adam Holland of Harvard’s Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society published a good summary of the ebb and flow of the debate over the NEL. The Internet Archive ended its NEL experiment in June 2020, shortly after several major publishers filed a lawsuit against the IA. As I commented at the time, it looked as if the Archive was using the pandemic as an excuse to challenge some of the basic precepts of copyright. Even though the IA ended its Emergency Library, the lawsuit continues as the publishers are challenging the base principle under which the Internet Archive lends digitized works that are still under copyright. The theory the IA uses to justify the way it operates its Open Library is known as “Controlled Digital Lending”.

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