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The Case of the Internet Archive vs. Book Publishers

Information wants to be free, but it also wants to be expensive

Information wants to be free. This notion, first brought up in 1984, accurately predicted the future of the internet. Digital reproduction of data and words costs nothing, leading to an overwhelming abundance of information.

However, information also wants to be expensive. The right information at the right time can have life-saving, wealth-building, and government-toppling effects. Producing good information requires time, effort, and money.

The recent battle between free and expensive information began with an act of charity. Brewster Kahle, the head of the Internet Archive, decided to help students, researchers, and readers during the early months of the Covid pandemic. He created the National Emergency Library, which offered a vast collection of digital books that were mostly unavailable elsewhere.

Unfortunately, this well-intentioned effort backfired. Four publishers accused the archive of “willful mass copyright infringement” and sued. They were successful, and the publishers recently announced that they had reached a deal with the archive to remove all their copyright books from the site. The archive expressed uncertainty about the future of its lending program and mentioned the possibility of a financial payment if they lose on appeal.

This case has caused bitterness between the two sides, with each accusing the other of bad faith and zealotry. Writers, who play a crucial role in producing valuable information, find themselves caught in the middle. Emotions are running high, with thousands of writers signing petitions both in support of and against the lawsuit.

This conflict between free and expensive information is a continuous struggle across various forms of media and entertainment. Neither side holds the upper hand indefinitely. As technology visionary Stewart Brand puts it, “The more information is free, the more opportunities for it to be collected, refined, packaged and made expensive. The more it is expensive, the more workarounds to make it free. It’s a paradox. Each side makes the other true.”

The battle between universal access to knowledge and the interests of publishers has been a longstanding one. Brewster Kahle has long championed the idea of providing access to all knowledge. While his efforts with the National Emergency Library didn’t go as planned, he found encouragement in the support shown by the Board of Supervisors of San Francisco.

Librarians, like Kahle, view themselves as custodians of knowledge. However, publishers see libraries as customer service departments for their database products. The digital nature of e-books has disrupted the traditional notion of ownership. E-books cannot be resold or given away, and libraries must buy licenses from copyright holders to lend them out. This new system restricts access to information and undermines the permanence of library collections.

The recent court battle between the Internet Archive and publishers highlighted growing concerns about the ability of tech, entertainment, and media companies to maintain public access to a diverse culture. The ruling in favor of the publishers puts the future of library collections and cultural preservation at risk.

While the publishers claim to be protecting the rights of authors, the archive argues that their actions harm the greater public good. Both sides accuse each other of refusing to negotiate, further fueling the bitterness surrounding the case.

The conflict between free and expensive information is likely to continue, with neither side maintaining dominance indefinitely. As the landscape of media and entertainment evolves, the struggle for access to valuable information will persist.