Publishers Win Ruling Against Online Library’s Lending of Digital Books

A federal judge ruled Friday that a nonprofit online platform violated the copyrights of four leading publishers by lending digitally scanned copies of their books without permission.

U.S. District Judge John Koeltl in Manhattan rejected arguments by the organization Internet Archive that it was making fair use of the copyright-protected books in its possession by allowing online readers to borrow digital copies, one person at a time.

The case was being closely watched as a test of copyrights and library lending in a digital age. Judge Koeltl in a 47-page ruling said the Internet Archive’s model threatened publishers’ potential revenues by diverting readers and libraries from authorized ebooks. 

“IA’s fair use defense rests on the notion that lawfully acquiring a copyrighted print book entitles the recipient to make an unauthorized copy and distribute it in place of the print book, so long as it does not simultaneously lend the print book. But no case or legal principle supports that notion,” the judge wrote.

The plaintiffs were


SCA’s Hachette Book Group,

John Wiley & Sons Inc.,

Bertelsmann SE’s Penguin Random House, and HarperCollins Publishers, which like The Wall Street Journal is owned by

News Corp.

The plaintiffs sued Internet Archive in 2020, saying the platform unlawfully offered a range of books from modern bestsellers to classic works including

William Golding’s

“Lord of the Flies,”

Toni Morrison’s

“The Bluest Eye” and

Zora Neale Hurston’s

“Their Eyes Were Watching God.”

“The impact of this case cannot be underestimated. It validates the Copyright Act, which has been faithfully interpreted by the courts,” said Maria Pallante, president and chief executive of the Association of American Publishers. “It upholds the rights of authors and creative sectors in society.”

The individual publishers didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment.

The publishers said in court papers that the ebook licensing market for libraries has increased in recent years. For example, Penguin receives about $59 million a year in library ebook licensing and HarperCollins earned about $47 million in the U.S. library ebook market between 2015 and 2020, according to court documents. 

Internet Archive plans to appeal, said Corynne McSherry, legal director of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, part of the nonprofit’s legal team, calling the ruling “a blow for libraries, readers and authors.”

The archive had more than three million digitized books on offer, lending them to readers worldwide. Some of those works are in the public domain and not covered by copyrights.

At the center of the dispute was a growing practice supporters described as controlled digital lending, in which a library owns a physical copy of a book, digitizes it and then loans out the digital version to one borrower at a time. The model stands in contrast to the publishers’ approach in which libraries pay publishers to license ebooks for lending to the public.

The archive argued it should be able to share its collection just like a bricks-and-mortar library. Its supporters said the practice was particularly beneficial for older and less popular titles for which publisher-issued ebooks might not be available.

“A future in which libraries are just a shell for Big Tech’s licensing software and Big Media’s most popular titles would be awful—but that’s where we’re headed if this decision stands,” said Lia Holland, communications director at Fight for the Future, a group that advocates for digital rights.

Write to Erin Mulvaney at [email protected]

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