There are a variety of opinions concerning the Internet Archive’s National Emergency Library in response to the pandemic. I’ve made it clear in multiple posts why I believe the freakout from some publishers and authors is misguided, and that the details of the program are very different than those crying about it have led you to believe. If you don’t trust my analysis and want to whine about how I’m biased, I’d at least suggest reading a fairly balanced review of the issues by the Congressional Research Service.
However, Kyle Courtney, the Copyright Advisor for Harvard University, has a truly masterful post highlighting not just why the NEL makes sense, but just how problematic it is that many — including the US Copyright Office — seem to want to move to a world of permission and licensing for culture that has never required such things in the past.
Licensing culture is out of control. This has never been clearer than during this time when hundreds of millions of books and media that were purchased by libraries, archives, and other cultural intuitions have become inaccessible due to COVID-19 closures or, worse, are closed off further by restrictive licensing.
What’s really set Courtney off is that the Copyright Office has come out, in response to the NEL, to suggest that the solution to any such concerns raised by books being locked up by the pandemic must be more licensing:
The ultimate example of this licensing culture gone wild is captured in a recent U.S. Copyright Office letter. Note that this letter is not a legally binding document. It is the opinion of an office under the control of the Library of Congress, that is tasked among other missions, with advising Congress when they ask copyright questions, as in this case.
Senator Tom Udall asked the Copyright Office to give its legal analysis of the NEL and similar library efforts, and it did so… badly.
The Office responded with a letter revealing their recommendation was not going to be the guidance document to “help libraries, authors, and online outlets,” but, ultimately, called for more licensing. It also continued a common misunderstanding of an important case, Capitol Records, LLC v. ReDigi Inc., 910 F. 3d 649 (2d Cir 2018).
We’ve written about the Redigi case a few times, but as Courtney details, the anti-internet, pro-extreme copyright folks have embraced it to mean much more than it actually means (we’ll get back that shortly). Courtney points out that the Copyright Office seems to view everything through a single lens: “licensing” (i.e., permission). So while the letter applauds more licensing, that’s really just a celebration of greater permission when none is necessary. And through that lens the Copyright Office seems to think that the NEL isn’t really necessary because publishers have been choosing to make some of their books more widely available (via still restrictive licensing). But, as Courtney explains, libraries aren’t supposed to need permission:
Here’s the problem though: these vendors and publishers are not libraries. The law does not treat them the same. Vendors must must ask permission, they must license, this is their business model. Libraries are special creatures of copyright. Libraries have a legally authorized mandate granted by Congress to complete their mission to provide access to materials. They put many of these in copyright exemptions for libraries in the Copyright Act itself.
The Copyright Office missed this critical difference completely when it said digital, temporary, or emergency libraries should “seek permission from authors or publishers prior” to the use. I think think this is flat-out wrong. And I have heard this in multiple settings over the last few months: somehow it has crept into our dialog that libraries should have always sought a license to lend books, even digital books, exactly like the vendors and publishers who sought permission first. Again, this is fundamentally wrong.
Let me make this clear: Libraries do not need a license to loan books. What libraries do (give access to their acquired collections of acquired books) is not illegal. And libraries generally do not need to license or contract before sharing these legally acquired works, digital or not. Additionally, libraries, and their users, can make (and do make) many uses of these works under the law including interlibrary loan, reserves, preservation, fair use, and more!