Delete Your Account, Internet Archive — No-one is Burning Digital Books

Posted March 2, 2022
By John Degen

Engaged as I am in the endless fight to protect the rights of creative professionals, I spend way too much of my time reading ridiculous claims by folks who just want free stuff. Ask any writer, musician, artist of any kind; approximately four out of every five interactions around our work involves us explaining that we can’t work for free or give away the product of our work without compensation. The pressure for free cultural product is relentless and exhausting to those who are trying to make a living in culture.

Because a demand for someone else’s property is an unjustifiably selfish act, the champions of ‘gimme’ like to disguise their motivations by styling themselves as freedom fighters. Their rhetoric is silly and disingenuous, self-aggrandizing and laughable. Occasionally though, it wanders into the realm of the truly bizarre and dangerous.

Case in point, a frothingly alarmist posting on ZDNet (a news platform for IT professionals) offering the outrageous claim that publishers are actively engaged in book-burning and censorship. The piece is written by Chris Freeland, whose job is Director of the Open Libraries program at the Internet Archive. The San Francisco-based Internet Archive (IA) is a tax-exempt, not-for-profit of vast annual and foundational wealth, with deep roots in the Big Tech money-pool of Silicon Valley. IA’s “Open Library” should definitely not be confused with an actual, publicly funded library.

Freeland suggests an immoral equivalence between the recent high-profile attempt to ban Art Spiegelman’s Maus (a Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic novel about the Holocaust) from a Tennessee school board’s approved curriculum and Penguin Random House’s request to have an unauthorized electronic version of that same book removed from the Internet Archive’s Open Library. 

Please note that the school board ban backfired, as these things so often do. Instead of hiding the book away, it increased the availability of Spiegelman’s brilliant work for Tennessee’s young readers. Sales of Maus skyrocketed, and many donations of legally purchased physical books were made. As far as I can tell, though, Open Library was not engaged in any of those legal donations. It’s sort of not their bag.

Open Library “lends” scans of print books, despite not having either purchased or licensed the digital rights to do so. That’s like me lending you my neighbour’s house for the weekend by hacking the key and giving it to you. IA has recently been pushing a controversial theory called Controlled Digital Lending (CDL), attempting to retroactively carve out a new copyright exception to justify their own long held scanning business. Canadian free-culture crusaders are now pushing CDL as well. It represents nothing less than an attempted appropriation of the e-book marketplace.

Penguin Random House is not alone in its distaste for Internet Archive. Authors around the world are actively engaged in filing take-down demands with Open Library, after finding unauthorized scans of our own books in their collection. Freeland describes PRH’s perfectly legal request to remove Maus as “a real live digital book-burning.”  I guess by extension, then, all the authors telling Open Library to get stuffed are also burning our own books. 

How monumentally insulting and ignorant.

Freeland attempts some anti-creator sleight-of-hand by positioning his wealthy employer as a plucky little David facing a supposed Goliath made up of publishers and their writers. If you haven’t been paying attention the past couple decades, there is no sector wealthier than the technology sector and no place pricier to set up shop than San Francisco, where our plucky little David owns a large neoclassical edifice.

By contrast, there are few if any sectors with tighter margins than publishing. And writing? Well, the word “profit” hardly ever appears. In fact, Canada’s writers have had to meet several times with the Canada Revenue Agency to explain that the tax-code term “reasonable expectation of profit” (a requirement for expense deductions) cannot really apply to a writing business in any given year. Our timelines are simply much longer, and our risk far greater. 

So, no, writers and publishers are not the bully in any fight with the technology sector, and it’s a bad joke to suggest so.

Freeland’s censorship claim must not be left to fester. He’s just plain wrong, and the calumny of the term “book-burning” must be challenged. Set aside the incomprehensible idea that someone in the business of producing and distributing books would press a lit match against their own product, there is far too much real censorship and book suppression going on right now to let Freeland’s self-serving manipulation of the term stand.

He is like someone parking his truck and blasting an air horn on public streets for weeks, and then claiming his “freedom” is being infringed when he’s asked to move along. Most of us see through that childish behaviour and weak rhetoric.

For the record: 

  • Expecting a library to purchase the proper rights for digital lending is not censorship; it is established, reasonable law throughout the world.
  • Penguin Random House has a legal duty to its authors to protect digital rights, and a right to profit from its considerable contribution to culture.
  • Physical copies of Maus remain available in libraries all over the world.
  • Everyone who can afford to should go buy Maus right now. It costs $35 for two volumes – a bargain. Tech oligarchs should buy entire warehouses of it.
  • Internet Archive should stop whining, and put its many, many millions toward proper, responsible acquisition practices for digital property.