Internet Archive Targeted by Publishing Giants

by W.R. Hothershall

The Internet Archive (IA), one of the world’s most widely used digital libraries, has long been in the sights of profit-hungry publishing companies. A recent court ruling by New York Southern District Court Judge John Koetl struck a major blow at the library’s digital lending ability, as the judge sided with the top 4 largest US publishing houses (Penguin Random House, HarperCollins, Simon & Schuster, and The Hachette Book Group). These 4 publishing houses along with Macmillan make up the “Big 5” US publishers, which controlled over 80% of the US trade book market as of 2022.[1]

In its own defense, the IA put out a statement arguing that “[t]his decision impacts libraries across the US who rely on controlled digital lending to connect their patrons with books online. It hurts authors by saying that unfair licensing models are the only way their books can be read online. And it holds back access to information in the digital age, harming all readers, everywhere.”[2]

This anti-information assault is a response to the IA’s creation of a temporary National Emergency Library (NEL) during the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic. With physical libraries largely shut down during this time, the IA altered its digital lending practices to allow the lending out of multiple copies of digital books at once.[3] Despite the NEL only being active from March 24 to June 16, 2020, the publishing giants banded together to sue the IA for copyright infringement.

Despite the lawsuit ostensibly being filed by the publishers in part over “past market harm” done by the IA, “[the plaintiffs, i.e., the publishers] didn’t present any economic sort of quantitative analysis of how this affected them at all… In fact, they told their experts not to conduct their own quantitative analysis of how much this affected them [emphasis — W.H.].”[4] This is likely because any investigation into such “harm” would reveal the skyrocketing revenue of major publishing companies, particularly since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. The table below shows the revenue of these publishers in millions of dollars from 2016-2021.[5]

The roughly 7% and 10% increases in the respective years of 2020 and 2021 indicate massive profits reaped by these companies because of the pandemic. Authors Guild CEO Mary Rasenberger lamented that “[i]t’s just extraordinary, how with the rise of library e-book lending, how much income to the publishers and the authors has declined.”[6] While claiming that she’s “seen data from a publisher that proves this,” Rasenberger provided zero evidence to support her claim. Indeed, the publicly available statistics flatly contradict such a claim.[7]

Juliya Ziskina, a policy fellow at the nonprofit Library Futures, accurately points out the absurdity of the publishers’ claim that libraries (including digital libraries like the IA) are “costing authors money”: “That’s kind of like saying every time you drink tap water, a bottled water company is losing money.”[8] Aram Sinnreich, a professor at the American University School of Communication, explains that “[t]he publishers believe that digital lending should essentially be a right that they license to libraries and that every time a library wants to loan something to a reader, the publishers should get paid a licensing fee [emphasis — W.H.].”[9]

Instead of technological innovation being harnessed to further strengthen the main purpose of libraries (the providing of free information, literature, and media to the public), the logic of capitalism necessitates that the benefits of such technological progress be subordinated to the interests of profit (in this case, the publishing companies). A helpful example of this phenomenon as it relates to e-books is given by Alan Inouye, leader of the American Library Association’s (ALA) public policy and advocacy office:

“Can you give [an e-book] to your friend? Not likely, the license probably does not allow you to do that. Can you sell it? Not likely. When you pass, will it pass to your heirs? Almost certainly not. Can you give it to a library? No, you can’t do that… There are all these things you used to be able to do with print books that you cannot do with digital books [emphasis — W.H.].”[10]

An important effect of this technological development is how e-books are distributed to libraries. While physical books are sold to libraries by publishing companies, e-books are only licensed out, meaning these are rented by libraries (not owned by them). This makes it more expensive for libraries to facilitate the distribution of e-books than physical ones, as the licensing agreements are owned and controlled by the publishing companies. Capitalism thus places libraries’ ability to perform their essential function at the mercy of the private interests of the publishers.
Lynne M. Thomas, an academic librarian and magazine editor, accurately explains the effects that this system has on libraries:

“Ultimately, what ends up happening is that libraries spend more of their money on licensing things that they don’t own, which can be taken away at any time that are more expensive to begin with than buying hard copies in order to serve a segment of their population that uses [e-books], and that you ended up with a much smaller selection of materials, because the budget gets eaten so much faster [emphasis — W.H.].”[11]

IA Chairperson Brewster Kahle “doesn’t want to see a world where librarians become completely beholden to databases that publishers sell libraries access to… The idea is that all libraries need to be able to continue to lend books, preserve old editions of books, and protect patrons’ privacy… All libraries are fighting these fights against corporate publishers.”[12]

Both the National Writers Union (NWU) and the Authors Guild (AG) applauded the anti-IA ruling as “a win for creative types,” further exposing the already obvious petty-bourgeois class interests of their leaders. Such pro-copyright enthusiasm was shared by Maria Pallante, the head of the Association of American Publishers (AAP), who in a statement said the ruling “underscored the importance of authors, publishers, and creative markets in a global society [emphasis — W.H.].”[14]

Organizations like the NWU and AG have an inherent interest in unilaterally preserving copyright law for perpetual licenses and limitless profits. Authors largely seek to maintain their current relations with large publishing houses, as their livelihoods (under capitalism) are tied to the interests of private publishing companies. Instead of such a ruling serving as a rallying point for authors and writers alike to rally to the defense of libraries’ ability to lend books and preserve historical information for public accessibility, the current productive relations between authors and publishing companies encourage writers to prioritize their individual interests at the expense of their shared, collective interests.

Writers being against libraries makes about as much sense as workers being against socialism, and by framing this ruling as a victory for writers, organizations like the NWU are demonstrating their failure to conduct any serious economic analysis. Books are written by authors, and then are sold as commodities by the publishers: this process of authors’ books becoming commodities for capitalist consumption is what creates the problem of “fair compensation” for many writers to begin with. Fortunately, many writers and authors are refusing to accept the NWU’s approach, as “[o]ver a thousand writers signed a recent letter in support of digital libraries that specifically critiques the lawsuit against the [IA].”[15]

Co-founder of News Co/Lab, Dan Gillmor, is correct when he asserts that “[b]ig Publishing would outlaw public libraries if it could — or at least make it impossible for libraries to buy and lend books as they have traditionally done, to enormous public benefit — and its campaign against the [IA] is a step toward that goal.”[16]

Copyright laws only came into existence “[w]ith the emergence of a [bourgeois] consciousness of individuals and property, the spread of market relations, and technological breakthroughs, especially the printing press,” and exist merely to protect the private interests of capitalists.[17] While capitalism commodifies information technology, thereby limiting its distribution and consumption, socialism will allow for the highest possible level of information preservation, distribution, and accessibility. This directly coincides with the interests of the masses of workers, as socialism prohibits any incentive to profit from restricting the public’s ability to access information.

The campaign against the IA must be recognized for what it is: a push by publishing companies to further restrict the distribution and circulation of information in pursuit of expanding their already astounding profits. We must all oppose such a brazen attempt by these companies to increase the privatization of information that should be publicly available and accessible.


[1] Dean Talbot, “Book Publishing Companies Statistics,” WordsRated, January 7, 2023,

[2] Janet Nguyen, “Book Publishing Companies Statistics,” Minnesota Public Radio, March 30, 2023,

[3] Solcyre Burga, “Internet Archive Loses Lawsuit Over E-Book Copyright Infringement. Here’s What to Know,” Time USA, March 26, 2023,

[4] Claire Woodcock, “Internet Archive Loses Historic Copyright Case, Vows to Appeal,” Vice Media Group, March 27, 2023,

[5] Dean Talbot, “Book Publishing Companies Statistics,” WordsRated, January 7, 2023,

[6] Kate Knibbs, “The Internet Archive’s Literary Civil War,” Condé Nast Publications, March 31, 2023,

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Janet Nguyen, “Book Publishing Companies Statistics,” Minnesota Public Radio, March 30, 2023,

[10] Ibid.

[11] Claire Woodcock, “Internet Archive Loses Historic Copyright Case, Vows to Appeal,” Vice Media Group, March 27, 2023,

[12] Ibid.

[13] Kate Knibbs, “The Internet Archive’s Literary Civil War,” Condé Nast Publications, March 31, 2023,

[14] Nate Raymond & Blake Brittain, “Internet Archive’s digital book lending violates copyrights, US judge rules,” Reuters, March 27, 2023,

[15] Kate Knibbs, “The Internet Archive’s Literary Civil War,” Condé Nast Publications, March 31, 2023,

[16] Solcyre Burga, “Internet Archive Loses Lawsuit Over E-Book Copyright Infringement. Here’s What to Know,” Time USA, March 26, 2023,

[17] Johan Söderberg, “Copyleft vs. Copyright: A Marxist Critique,” First Monday, February 2002,

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