San Francisco Supervisors Throw Support Behind Internet Archive as It Fights Copyright Ruling

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A group of about 40 people stand on steps in front of a building holding numerous signs, a prominent one reading 'librarians wouldn't delete a book'
Dozens of supporters rallied outside the Internet Archive's San Francisco library on April 8 to defend the nonprofit's free e-book lending project. (S. Smith Patrick/Courtesy Internet Archive)

San Francisco leaders are throwing their support behind the threatened Internet Archive, a free digital library headquartered in San Francisco’s Richmond District.

The Board of Supervisors on Tuesday unanimously approved a resolution (PDF) in support of the archive, which is fighting a federal ruling from late March, when U.S. District Court Judge John G. Koeltl of the Southern District of New York sided with publishers who sued the nonprofit for copyright violation. The resolution next heads to Mayor London Breed for approval. Then, Chan said, it will be referred to the state Legislature and the U.S. Congress for support.

“At a time when we are seeing an increase in censorship and book bans across the country, we must move to preserve free access to information,” Supervisor Connie Chan, who authored the resolution and represents the Richmond District, said in a press release. “I am proud to stand with the Internet Archive, our Richmond District neighbor, and digital libraries throughout the United States.”

Founded in 1996, the Internet Archive is a nonprofit digital library and archive that preserves books, music, film, webpages and many more media artifacts and makes them publicly available for free. It holds nearly 41 million books and counting, and lends those as e-books on a one-to-one basis referred to as “controlled digital lending.”

But in 2020, when in-person libraries were largely closed due to the pandemic, the archive removed waitlists for its e-books so more people could access them. It ended that practice in June of the same year, but by then, four of the largest publishing houses had sued the Internet Archive for copyright infringement.


Hachette Book Group, HarperCollins, Penguin Random House and Wiley argued that the archive’s so-called Open Library ignores licensing fees that libraries are supposed to pay publishers for texts that are not in the public domain.

The publishers specifically complained about 127 books not under public domain (PDF) that are stored and offered freely on the archive, by authors such as Sylvia Plath, Jon Krakauer, Toni Morrison, Malcolm Gladwell, C.S. Lewis and J.D. Salinger.

Because libraries had already paid licensing fees for the print books that the archive scans as part of the Open Library project, the nonprofit argued its one-to-one lending system constitutes fair use.

But Koeltl agreed with the publishers. “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,” Koeltl said in his ruling (PDF). “But no case or legal principle supports that notion. Every authority points the other direction.”

The Internet Archive is now appealing that case with a boost from local leaders and community members.

“It’s a sad day that we have to be here to talk about the importance of maintaining access to information through libraries,” Brewster Kahle, founder and digital librarian of the Internet Archive, said in the press announcement. “We must stand firm in our commitment to providing Universal Access to All Knowledge.”

Supporters of the Internet Archive held a rally on the steps of its San Francisco-based library and museum on April 8. The archive also operates a warehouse in the city of Richmond where millions of books donated by libraries and individuals are stored.

Chan’s resolution recognized “the irreplaceable public value of libraries, including online libraries like the Internet Archive, and the essential rights of all libraries to own, preserve, and lend both digital and print books to the residents of San Francisco and the wider public.”