COVID-19 Special Coverage
All Your Books Are Belong to Us*
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All Your Books Are Belong to Us*

*Editor’s Note: The title as written is not ungrammatical, but rather refers to an internet meme you can read about here.

Apparently, quarantine means never having to say you’re sorry. All of a sudden, people are coming out with hot takes you never would have expected. Except you did all along.

For example, a remarkable number of people apparently think libraries are bad, because they provide information for free, rather than forcing people to pay. In response to the Covid-19 crisis, the Internet Archive created the National Emergency Library, a repository of e-books that people can check out virtually, rather than visiting a library and checking out a book in person.

Most people were delighted by this creative and selfless effort of a charity to make books available to people who rely on libraries. After all, not everyone can afford to just buy everything they want to read on Amazon. While an e-book is no substitute for the real thing, something is better than nothing, and a lot of people trapped at home could benefit from increased access to reading material.

But publishers didn’t see it that way. On the contrary, they freaked out, and encouraged their allies to do the same. Among other things, the Authors Guild and its members took to Twitter to complain that the Internet Archive was essentially stealing their paycheck, by enabling people to read books for free, rather than paying for them.

As I’ve previously argued, their complaint is pure landlordism. Authors – or rather, publishers – want to collect their rents and are mad that some people might not pay. Ironically, they don’t even identify any actual lost sales, just the potential.

And yet, the most depressing thing about the complaint is that it’s really just a criticism of libraries. After all, libraries literally exist for the purpose of enabling people to consume information without paying for it. After all, information is a non-rival good. No matter how much of it you consume, the same amount remains. Hell, you might even produce more, as a by-product.

Mike Masnick of TechDirt recently observed that if libraries didn’t already exist, publishers would never allow their creation. The Authors Guild’s objections to the National Emergency Library are a warmed-over version of the same complaint.

Of course, as Masnick also observed, the complaints about the National Emergency Library are also totally meritless, as it is perfectly legal. But I recently came across a letter that Brewster Kahle of the Internet Archive sent to Senator Thom Tillis, the Chairman of the Subcommittee on Intellectual Property, reflecting on the purpose of the National Emergency Library, which makes the point even more directly and poignantly. I recommend it.

I will go out on a limb and say that I think libraries are a good thing, in plaguetime and always. When you find yourself complaining about libraries, you might want to think twice about your priorities.

 

Brian L. Frye is a conceptual law professor (IP, PR, nonprofits, art law, legal history) at the University of Kentucky College of Law. Brian is also a “Securities artist” and a host of the Ipse Dixit Podcast.

 

Suggested citation: Brian L. Frye, All Your Books Are Belong to Us, JURIST – Academic Commentary, April 11, 2020, https://www.jurist.org/commentary/2020/04/brian-frye-emergency-library/


This article was prepared for publication by Tim Zubizarreta, JURIST’s Managing Editor. Please direct any questions or comments to him at commentary@jurist.org


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