Librarian’s Complaint: eBooks Aren’t Fireproof

The disturbing trend of school boards and lawmakers banning books from libraries and public schools is accelerating across the country. In response, Jason Perlow last week advocated for what he calls a “Freedom Archive,” a digital repository of banned books. Such an archive is the right antidote to the book ban because, he argued, “you can’t burn a digital book”. The problem is, you can.

A few days ago, Penguin Random House, the publisher of Maus, Art Spiegelman’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Holocaust graphic novel demanded that the Internet Archive remove the book from our lending library. Why? Because, in their words, “consumer interest in ‘Maus’ skyrocketed” following a Tennessee school board‘s decision to ban the teaching of the book. By his own admission, to maximize profits, a publishing industry Goliath prohibits our non-profit library from lending a banned book to our patrons: a veritable live digital burn.

We are the library of last resort, where anyone can access books that may be controversial wherever they live – an existing version of “Freedom Archive” offered by Perlow. Today, the Internet Archive lends a wide selection of other banned books, including farm animal, Winnie the Pooh, The Call of the Wild, and the Junie B. Jones and Goose bumps series of children’s books. But all these books are also at risk of being destroyed.

In the summer of 2020, four of the largest publishers in the United States, including Penguin Random House, filed a lawsuit to force our library to destroy the more than 1.4 million digital books in our collection. In their ongoing lawsuit, the publishers are using copyright law as a battering ram to assert corporate control over the public good. In this case, it means destroying freely available books and other materials that people rely on to become productive and informed participants in the civic, economic, and social life of the country.

Copyright law grants authors and publishers a limited monopoly over the books they produce. The law also enshrines a host of socially beneficial uses that the public can make of these books without permission or payment. The famous flexible doctrine of fair use has allowed libraries to continue to serve the public in the face of rapid technological and social change.

If there was ever a time of “socially beneficial” access to books, it was March 2020 when the COVID-19 pandemic ended the use of in-person libraries almost everywhere. In response to the unprecedented crisis, more than 100 libraries holding critical books they could not lend signed a statement supporting the Internet Archive’s creation of a temporary national emergency library. The NEL allowed patrons controlled digital access to collections that were physically locked away. It was a lifeline to reliable information for parents, teachers and students everywhere.

Yet, in a wildly overreaction to the facts, publishers filed a lawsuit in June 2020 to shut down NEL, as well as our book lending practice as a whole. And in addition to seeking millions of dollars in damages and costs, the lawsuit asks the Internet Archive to destroy all digital books in our collections. It is a digital book that burns on a large scale.

If the publishers prevail, much more than the future of the Internet Archive will be threatened. What publishers want is to end library ownership of their own collections. Instead, publishers want to rent eBooks from libraries, like landlords. They want to control our cultural commons for their own commercial gain.

Think about what just happened with Maus. When a local government entity banned this book, the publisher decided to remove it from the shelves of a digital library, preventing our customers from reading it in order to derive maximum profit from it. Whether it’s corporate bullying or government banning, e-books are not immune to censorship.

The lending by the Internet Archive of a digital version of the book did nothing to diminish Mausthe recent surge in sales. Even so, the publisher decided they had to do everything possible to remove the book from our library. Turns out you can burn a digital book.

Chris Freeland (@chrisfreeland) is Librarian and Director of the Internet Archive Open Libraries Program.

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