A few weeks ago, we wrote about the misguided freakout by (mainly) publishers and some authors over the Internet Archive’s decision to launch the National Emergency Library during the COVID-19 pandemic, to help all of us who are stuck at home be able to digitally access books that remain in locked libraries around the country. A key point I made in that post: most (not all, but most) of the criticisms applied to the NEL project could equally apply to regular libraries. And perhaps that’s why hundreds of libraries have come out in support of the project, even as those attacking the project insist that it’s not an attack on libraries.
Either way, it was only a matter of time before publishers got their lapdogs in Congress to start making noise, and first out of the gate was Senator Thom Tillis, who is already deep into his attempt to make copyright law worse, and who last week sent a letter to the Internet Archive’s Brewster Kahle that reads very much like it was written by book publishers. First it gets high and mighty about how the pandemic has “shown the critical value of copyrighted works to the public interest” which is just a weird way to phrase things. The fact that something valuable is covered by copyright does not automatically mean that copyright is helpful or valuable for that situation. Then it gets to the point:
I am not aware of any measure under copyright law that permits a user of copyrighted works to unilaterally create an emergency copyright act. Indeed, I am deeply concerned that your “Library” is operating outside the boundaries of the copyright law that Congress has enacted and alone has jurisdiction to amend.
A few days later, Kahle responded in a detailed and thorough letter to Tillis. It points out that the Internet Archive is well-established and recognized by the state of California as a library, and that it has already shown that it has a legal right to digitize books. And then goes on to explain that the point of the NEL is to help enable Tillis’ own constituents to access to the books that their tax dollars paid for while they’re locked up collecting dust inside libraries that are closed during the pandemic.
The National Emergency Library was developed to address a temporary and significant need in our communities — for the first time in our nation’s history, the entire physical library system is offline and unavailable. Your constituents have paid for millions of books they currently cannot access. According to National Public Library survey data from 2018-2019, North Carolina’s public libraries house more than fifteen million print book volumes in three-hundred twenty-three branches across the State. Because those branches are now closed and their books are unavailable, the massive public investment paid for by tax-paying citizens is unavailable to the very people who funded it. This also goes for public school libraries and academic libraries at community colleges, public colleges and universities as well. The National Emergency Library was envisioned to meet this challenge of providing digital access to print materials, helping teachers, students and communities gain access to books while their schools and libraries are closed.
It also highlights something else that many had missed: the NEL does not include any books published within the last five years — which is pretty important, since the commercial value of a book usually exists in the first couple years after publishing. Indeed, a recent study highlighted how the vast, vast, vast majority of sales tends to come soon after a book is published and then sales decline rapidly. So the argument that the NEL is somehow taking away from author income is already somewhat questionable.
And, indeed, the Archive is currently seeing evidence that suggests the NEL is not actually impacting author earnings in any significant way:
In an early analysis of the use we are seeing what we expected: 90% of the books borrowed were published more than ten years ago, two-thirds were publish