Thomas James (“The Cokato Copyright Attorney”) explains how Hachette Book Group et al. v. Internet Archive, filed in the federal district court for the Southern District of New York on June 1, 2020, tests the limits of authors’ and publishers’ digital rights in their copyright-protected works.
The gravamen of the complaint is that Internet Archive (“IA”) allegedly scanned books and made them freely available to the public via an Internet website without the permission of copyright rights-holders. Book publishers filed this lawsuit alleging that IA’s activities infringe their exclusive rights of reproduction and distribution under the United States Copyright Act.
As of this writing, the case is at the summary judgment stage, with briefing currently scheduled to end in October, 2022. Whatever the outcome, an appeal seems very likely. Here is an overview to bring you up to speed on what the case is about.
The undisputed facts
Per the parties’ stipulation, the following facts are not disputed:
The case involves numerous published books which the publishers who filed this lawsuit (Hachette Book Group, HarperCollins, Penguin Random House, and John Wiley & Sons) have exclusive rights, under the United States Copyright Act, to reproduce and distribute.
Internet Archive and Open Library of Richmond are nonprofit organizations the IRS has classified as 501(c)(3) public charities. These organizations purchased print copies of certain books identified in the lawsuit.
The core allegations
The plaintiffs allege that IA obtains print books that are protected by copyright, scans them into a digital format, uploads them to its servers, and then distributes these digital copies to members of the public via a website – all without a license and without any payment to authors and publishers. Plaintiffs allege that IA has already scanned 1.3 million books and plans to scan millions more. The complaint describes this as “willful digital piracy on an industrial scale.”
First sale doctrine
One justification that is sometimes advanced for making digital copies of a work available for free online without paying the author or publisher is the so-called “first sale” doctrine. This is an exception to copyright infringement liability that essentially allows the owner of a lawfully acquired copy of a work to sell, transfer or lend it to other people without incurring copyright infringement liability. For example, a person who buys a print edition of a book may lend it to a friend or sell it at a garage sale without having to get the copyright owner’s permission. More to the point, a library may purchase a copy of a print version of a book and proceed to lend it to library patrons without fear of incurring infringement liability for doing so.
The doctrine does not apply to all kinds of works, but it does generally apply to print books.
The first sale doctrine only provides an exception to infringement liability for the unauthorized distribution of a work, however. It does not provide an exception to liability for unauthorized reproduction of a work. (See 17 U.S.C. § 109.) Scanning books to make digital copies is an act of reproduction, not distribution. Accordingly, the first sale doctrine does not appear to be a good fit as a defense in this case.
“Controlled digital lending”
Public libraries lend physical copies of the books in their collections to library patrons for no charge. Based on this practice, a white paper published by David R. Hansen and Kyle K. Courtney makes the case for treating the distribution of digitized copies of books by libraries as fair use, where the library maintains a one-to-one ratio between the number of physical copies of a book it has and the number of digital “check-outs” of the digital version it allows at any given time.
The theory, known as controlled digital lending (“CDL”), relies on an assumption that the distribution of a work electronically is the functional equivalent of distributing a physical copy of it, so long as the same limitations on the ability to “check out” the work from the library are imposed.
Publishers dispute this assumption. They take the position that there are important differences between e-books and print books. They maintain that these differences justify the distribution of e-books under a licensing program separate and distinct from their print book purchasing programs. They also question whether e-books are, in fact, distributed subject to the same limitations that apply to a print version of the book.
Whether a particular kind of use of a copyright-protected work is “fair use” or not requires consideration of four factors: (1) the nature of the work; (2) the character and purpose of the use; (3) the amount and substantiality of the portion copied; and (4) the effect of the use on the market for the work.
Supporters of free access to copyrighted works for all tend to focus on the “character and purpose” factor. They can be relied upon to argue that free access to literary works is a great benefit to the public. Authors and publishers tend to focus on the other factors. In this case, it seems possible that the factors relating to the amount copied and the effect of the use on the market for the work could weigh against a finding of fair use.
The federal district court in this case is being called upon to evaluate those factors and decide whether they weigh in favor of treating CDL – or at least, CDL as IA has applied and implemented it – as fair use or not.
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