Abstract: This article analyzes the role of copyright doctrine and case law in preserving the institutional function of libraries—both on- and offline—as trusted and, in principle, neutral hubs equalizing access to credible information and knowledge in societies with structural inequalities. In doing so it examines the ongoing Hachette v. Internet Archive litigation before the US District Court of the Southern District of New York in the context of earlier copyright cases, finding that there is a persistent need for electronic access to library material online.
Libraries have traditionally served an important role as reserved spaces for legally permissible distribution of books outside of markets. Copyright law, however, has the potential to hinder the fuction of libraries and other cultural heritage institutions particularly in equalizing access to knowledge. While there exist some exceptions and limitations that partially alleviate this, their applicability in the digital environment is still contested. Two novel challenges are interfering: first, an unmet and contentious need for emergency access to electronic library material to be granted online, and second, the need to counteract historical biases and misinformation, both of which multiply when spread within a hyper-connected and digitized society. In order to ensure electronic access to credible information and knowledge, policymakers must address these challenges strategically and reassess the needs of subjects and institutions that are currently subject to copyright exceptions.
Hachette v. Internet Archive follows a string of copyright cases that involved challenges to digitization without permission and to providing electronic access to digitized library material. The plaintiffs in Hachette v. Internet Archive, four publishers, brought copyright claims against the Internet Archive for the latter’s operation of a “National Emergency Library” within the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. The case introduces a new dimension to existing debates around electronic access to library material, particularly around e-lending, raising the question: Can emergencies justify additional exceptions to copyright laws covering electronic access to library material, and if so, under what circumstances?
After analyzing the relevant settled case law and the ongoing litigation against the Internet Archive and then looking back into the history of and rationale for copyright laws, the article advances a normative claim—that copyright should provide better support to libraries and digital libraries in particular (broadly defined) as the institutional safeguards of our literary treasures. Libraries have a public service mandate to preserve, curate, and provide access to a plurality of original and authoritative sources, and thus ultimately aspire not to compete in the marketplace but to become trusted hubs that equalize access to knowledge. In the context of a society currently struggling to fight historical biases and (online) misinformation, providing libraries with the legal support needed to fulfill this mandate will enable them to more effectively safeguard and provide equal access to (at least relatively) credible information and knowledge, including in the digital environment.