Bootleg Beowulf and Pirated Proust

ACP's spring 2020 intern, Jaclyn Chetty ('20), on Why Internet Archive’s Open Library Isn’t All It's Cracked Up To Be

It is news to nobody that COVID-19’s effects have been far-reaching. Libraries are feeling the pressure to find new ways to provide access to patrons. Yet, one library in particular is causing a stir in the publishing world - the Internet Archive’s Open Library is removing its waitlists and giving free and unlimited access to all e-books on its site.

The announcement of the National Emergency Library came on March 24, 2020, hot on the heels of colleges and universities across the country (and the world) transitioning to online learning to combat the spread of COVID-19.

In a time of limited access to scholarly resources, high profile media outlets like NPR and The New Yorker are praising The Internet Archive for providing its users free access to a digital collection of over 1.4 million titles - Jill Lepore lauded the National Emergency Library as “a gift to readers everywhere”.

So what’s the big deal? On the surface, this seems to be an act of goodwill set to benefit young learners and mature scholars alike. So why are big publishing moguls like HarperCollins and Penguin Random House embroiled in a copyright lawsuit against a nonprofit fighting access privilege during a global pandemic? Isn’t a free online library what proponents of open access publishing have been dreaming of all along? Well, not quite. In a federal lawsuit against the Internet Archive and its Open Library, plaintiffs cite issue with the “bulk digitization of the Publishers’ in-copyright books without a license and without any compensation”, referring to the resultant material as “illegal”, “bootleg” and “wholesale theft”.

It is important to first understand what open access means in the context of scholarly publishing; behind the many open access titles that exist today is a clear agreement between authors and publishers about how their works will be shared. Martin Paul Eve, author of Open Access and the Humanities, defines open access as “the removal of price and permission barriers to scholarly research”. Similarly, Peter Suber, author of MIT Press’ Open Access, defines OA literature as “digital online, free of charge, and free of most copyright licensing restrictions”. Both Eve and Suber’s understandings of OA put as much emphasis on removing paywalls as they do on honoring copyright laws, the latter decidedly less significant in the Internet Archive’s efforts. The open access movement is founded upon fairness for both creators and consumers, and despite arguments that the Internet Archive is prioritizing its readers by launching the National Emergency Library, it is simultaneously co-opting and tarnishing the mission of open-access publishing.

Yet, in spite of this, the fact remains that the Internet Archive’s Emergency Library is serving an important need for access to books during a global pandemic. The Internet Archive has been witness to many new patrons these past few months; from students writing papers and dissertations, to parents searching for homeschooling how-to guides, to the senior citizens for whom physical libraries are a vital resource.

So why should we care? Despite all the good that the Internet Archive has done in the time of COVID-19, the Internet Archive’s distribution model is still riddled with illegality. The circulation of what is essentially pirated material stunts the publishing realm’s efforts to ensure authors are fairly compensated for their work, bookstores remain in business and traditional libraries continue to be patroned. Open Access publishing, on the other hand, works in tandem with authors to provide free, online access to a wide range of titles. Interested in the intersections between Martial Arts and Orientalism? Check out Paul Bowman’s Deconstructing Martial Arts free from Cardiff University Press. Want to learn more about police brutality as a failure of the state? Take a look at Unburied Bodiesby James Martel and Amherst College Press. Interested in learning about music as a form of resistance? Try Bill Beutller’s Make It New: Reshaping Jazz in the 21st Century over at Lever Press.

The point is although many readers are tempted by the vastness of the Internet Archive’s Emergency Library, OA publishers have a similarly wide array of titles available online, free of charge, all year round. The Emergency Library, on the other hand, is set to end its unlimited access two weeks earlier than projected due to the copyright lawsuit against the Internet Archive. OA’s mission to provide access to literature and scholarly work to the masses is one that has existed long before the global pandemic began, and is one that was built with a sustainable, legal model free of copyright infringement and therefore able to stand the test of time -- and lawsuits. It is important that we support Open Access efforts now, so that when the next pandemic hits, OA publishers are well-established and well-equipped to serve its readers and scholars alike.

Jaclyn Chetty ('20) graduated from Amherst College this past spring, double-majoring in English and Educational Policy & Research. Her time as a Student Assistant at Amherst College Press blends her love for her literature with her passion for universal access to education. Her senior thesis melds post-colonial studies, ethnography and Fijian talanoa research to explore the effects of parental involvement in her own parents’ K12 education. Outside of this, she enjoys being in the kitchen and spending time with her cat, Jacinda!