Internet Archive to end temporary free e-book program after lawsuit

National Emergency Library had provided free, unfettered access to more than 1 million e-books, but it's shutting down after a lawsuit by four publishers.

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The Internet Archive is shutting down a program that temporarily lifted restrictions on e-book downloads.

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The Internet Archive is shutting down a temporary program earlier than expected that offered free access to e-books through the National Emergency Library. The program was created in March as libraries and schools around the country closed in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, but it will shut down two weeks early in response to a lawsuit filed earlier this month by book publishers.

The program suspended the waitlists for digital copies of more than 1.4 million books in March, "ensuring that students will have access to assigned readings and library materials that the Internet Archive has digitized," the organization said at the time. The program was originally expected to end on June 30 or when the national emergency ended," but will now close on June 15, the organization said in a blog post Wednesday.

"We have learned that the vast majority of people use digitized books on the Internet Archive for a very short time," the organization said, adding that patrons will continue to be served under normal digital lending.

The Internet Archive said it accelerated its plans to discontinue the program after four book publishers filed a lawsuit on June accusing the organization of "willful mass copyright infringement." While the organization describes itself as a library, it operates a little differently. Traditional libraries agree to pay licensing fees to publishers, while the Internet Archive temporarily offers access to scanned copies that have been donated.

"This lawsuit is not just about the temporary National Emergency Library," the Internet Archive said. "The complaint attacks the concept of any library owning and lending digital books, challenging the very idea of what a library is in the digital world."

The Authors Guild also objected to the program, saying the Internet Archive is "push[ing] copyright law further out to the edges," by making in-copyright books available for free, without having the rights to those books. The Authors Guild statement also said this could hurt writers at a time when they're already dealing with losses from canceled book tours and speaking engagements, from income-supplementing jobs and the like.