So, unless you’ve been living under a rock, or you happen to be a normal human who doesn’t care about the weave and weft of the publishing industry, you may have missed that the Internet Archive has announced its “National Emergency Library,” removing lending limits on what goes out the door, so anybody can grab anything at any time. Problem is, a number of authors have discovered their books there, and orgs like the Author’s Guild, the SFWA, and the Association of American Publishers, have all submitted statements objecting to what is perceived to be an over-reach on part of the IA.
I called them a “pirate site” for it, which admittedly was a bit of a stretch (social media is not good for nuance, please accept my apology), but it remains clear just the same that what they’re doing appears to exceed their purview. Regardless, NPR had initially promoted this as a good thing a few days ago, and last night issued a follow-up article, in which I’m quoted, but I wanted to give my full quote here, as I think the full context is useful, if not essential.
That statement is:
Though it was perhaps overwrought and hyperbolic to call the Internet Archive a ‘pirate site,’ it seems true just the same that with this ‘Emergency Library,’ the IA has gone and opened wide, free access to books that they do not have the rights to distribute. Some have said they operate like a real library, and these books are available only to the disabled, but I was able to get on there, grab a book of mine, read it on the site and download it to Adobe Editions. It appeared to be a physically-scanned book, and the limitless available downloads are not how average libraries work. The good news is, the site seems to cooperate with takedown notices from authors and publishers — but it’s also worth noting that authors and publishers do not generally have to submit those types of requests to libraries, which again suggests that this is not ‘business as usual,’ nor is it a library in the expected sense of the word.
The problem with bypassing copyright and disrupting the chain of royalties that lead from books to authors is that it endangers our ability to continue to produce art — and though we are all in the midst of a crisis, most artists are on the razor’s edge in terms of being able to support themselves. Artists get no safety net. We don’t get unemployment and aren’t likely to be able to participate in any worker bailouts. Health insurance alone is a gutpunch cost, not to mention the healthcare costs that insurance wouldn’t even cover. I’m lucky enough (currently, at least), that I can weather a bit of that storm more easily, but most can’t, particularly young authors, debut authors, and marginalized authors who are already fighting for a seat at the table. I’m also not alone in calling this site out — others like Alexander Chee, NK Jemisin, Neil Gaiman, Seanan McGuire, have noted their concerns over this.
I am all for access to information and entertainment, and remind folks that libraries here already allow you to take out e-books, even while their brick-and-mortar locations are closed. I used to work for a library system here in Pennsylvania, and libraries all around the country deserve their time to shine in this crisis, as we realize what vital institutions they are, both intellectually and as a service to the community.
You can read the SFWA’s letter re: infringement here. (From 2018.)
You can read the Authors’ Guild statement here.
You can read the statement from the Assoc of American Publishers here.
And another from Alexandra Erin, too.
And Seanan McGuire.
And, of course, from Alexander Chee.
You can read a rebuttal from the Internet Archive here.
Brewster Kahle, creator of the IA, said to NPR: “We’re librarians. We’re not social media gladiators… the best I can tell, [the critics of the system] just think what they see on social media, and they retweet it.” Which is more than a little dismissive of author and publisher concerns, but so it goes.
To continue my commentary here a little — when I spoke about this on Twitter, it poured gasoline on an already roaring fire, and I endured what could best be described as a deluge of awfulness from corners of the internet both predictable and unpredictable. (The alt-right and the far left are definitely high-fiving on this one, forming a complete circle.) The alt-right side is, as noted, predictable — but I am surprised that the left has embraced a site run by a Bay area tech mill/billionaire over the rights of artists and writers, who I’d think would more commonly be embraced as the “workers” so commonly thought of in workers’ rights. But I was told that I was a millionaire myself (news to me), and others were told that they were “idea landlords,” suggesting I suppose that any dipshit can write a book. (The evidence of that, however, is not plain to see.)
But writers and artists are workers — we work very hard to produce material over the course of years. A book in your hand was not a fast process. It likely took two years to reach you. A publisher worked on it, too, at least if it went through the traditional system: from developmental edits to copy-edits to marketing to design, to sales and distribution and so forth. Most people inside publishing, too, are not well-off. They, too, are workers. And as noted, writers and artists live on that razor’s edge of being able to support themselves, and that’s true too for the people inside publishing, and true too for bookstore employees and librarians. We’re not rolling in piles of cash from, say, selling Alexa to Amazon, like Brewster Kahle of the Internet Archive did.
I do admire the mission of the IA. Preserving information is admirable. I’m excited for any weird repository of information. But art and stories are not automagically “information.” They’re not data to be swept up by Internet vacuums and deposited into distribution tubes. Yes, over time certainly art does move into a public space in terms of ownership, and yes, there are copyright entities who want to tighten the belt on copyright so that doesn’t happen, which I also don’t agree with. But the battle for that isn’t in the studio apartments of writers and artists. Go yell at Disney. We’re not Disney. We’re trying not to die here in the void, especially at a time when now we’re looking at a world that is both hungry for more art while trapped at home and that may not be able to accommodate as many voices going forward. So we’re looking at the horizon, wondering what the fuck happens in 6, 9, 12 months. The recession of 2008 was not great for publishing, and this seems a deeper cut. So, we’re worried. And when we see a big institution like the IA pop our books up with no clear restrictions and no clear throughline as to how we get paid, that’s troubling. And again, “get paid” sounds crass, and yes, I’d like to live in the world where our chits and ducats don’t matter — but they do. We pay mortgages and rent, we pay exorbitant taxes and health care expenses, we also do this thing called “eating” “food” and turns out, that shit isn’t free, either. So “get paid” is a means to an end, not a means to get rich. Most writers are subsistence-types, not “roll around on a bed of money” types. We’d love to give our work away for free, because we’re in this less for money and more to share stories — but under our current system, sharing stories is a whole lot easier when we aren’t starving.
(Or dying from a pandemic disease which will leave us with high healthcare costs — or worse, will get us turned away from a hospital because we don’t have health insurance.)
The result ends up being, fewer voices going forward. And the bad news is, it’s not as likely that it’ll be my voice you’ll stop hearing. I’m by no means authorially indestructible, but I have contracts that will carry me for a while and, hopefully, I’ll remain. (Knock on wood, and much to the chagrin of some of you.) No, the ones you’re shaking off the ladder are, as I said above, debut authors, or young authors, or marginalized authors. It also ensures that publishers will take fewer chances on weirder, more interesting books because they cannot afford to.
Is there a nuanced conversation to have about copyright and access and fair use and all that? Of course. Is this it? No, it really isn’t. And that’s part of my problem — the IA simply made an assumption and made a move. A bulldozer effort. And bulldozers are not nuanced equipment. “For the greater good” has merit in some conversations, but it’s hard to see a greater good where writers and artists are pushed further to the margins instead of being brought closer to the center.
And here you may yet say, you don’t care, and fuck publishers, and fuck rich authors, and viva la revolucion, and I can’t change your mind on that. But if your worldview doesn’t include seeing writers and artists as workers (much less people), you’re probably a selfish fucking asshole anyway who is just looking for a convenient political excuse to be that particular asshole. Using your cause as a shield isn’t new, but it also isn’t clever or admirable.
(As a quick final follow-up sweep of outlying questions, I’ve seen it around that only two of my books were on the IA, but the first night I started tweeting about it, Wanderers was also there, in full, as was, if I recall, one of the Miriam Black books. The next day, only two remained, and they remain still: Under the Empyrean Sky and Double Dead. Some have pointed out that they haven’t been viewed or checked out much, which I assume is meant to be an indictment against me as well as a suggestion the site isn’t so bad, don’t worry about it, but I’d argue those people are missing the point by a country mile. Also, folks seem to think I want the Internet Archive to “shut down,” which is, again, missing the point. No, I do not want them shut down, relax. And finally, it has gone around that because I find this all a bit dubious, I hate libraries, which is a real fuckwit take — I’m not only a fan, I used to work for the public library. I entirely support people taking out my books from libraries. I actually support libraries being even more robust than they are now. I wish they had a stronger foundation and could lend out more books, because I see libraries as part of a vital social safety net, equal to roads in how they transmit information, equal to healthcare in that they contribute to the intellectual health of our nation.)
And that’s that.
Comments open, but ding-dongs will be sent to spam. And I do not have the wherewithal or time to sit here and reply to everyone who wants an argument, so please recognize you might be arguing with a wall. Which, just the same, you’re free to do.
And one last reminder, I do have access to some books to give away for free — you can grab my Mookie Pearl duology here, if you are so titillated.
Finally, as recompense, here is a picture of dogs, because dogs are a bonafide good.