On March 20, oral arguments will be heard in the publishers’ lawsuit against the Internet Archive, which was filed nearly three years ago. A lot has changed since then in the world of libraries. One surprising development is that the Internet Archive and its Open Library have suddenly become exponentially more valuable repositories of verifiable information.
In late February, Tyler Cowen, a libertarian economics professor at George Mason University, published a blog post titled, “Who was the most important critic of the printing press in the 17th century?” Cowen’s post contended that the polymath and statesman Francis Bacon was an “important” critic of the printing press; unfortunately, the post contains long, fake quotes attributed to Bacon’s The Advancement of Learning (1605), complete with false chapter and section numbers.
Tech writer Mathew Ingram drew attention to the fabrications a few days later, noting that Cowen has been writing approvingly about the AI chatbot ChatGPT for some time now; several commenters on Cowen’s post assumed the fake quotes must be the handiwork of ChatGPT. (Cowen did not reply to e-mailed questions regarding the post by press time, and later removed the post entirely, with no explanation whatsoever. However, a copy remains at the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine).
Fortunately, it was child’s play to fact-check Cowen’s fake quotes against the original text of The Advancement of Learning, for free, at the Internet Archive’s Open Library. After checking out the real book, I popped over to ChatGPT for a Q&A session of my own. The bot promptly started concocting fake, grossly inelegant Bacon quotes and chapter titles for me, too, so I called it out (an unedited excerpt follows):
(Obviously any of us could have conflated Francis Bacon with Benjamin Disraeli’s dad—and the book he wrote nearly two centuries years after Bacon’s death! For sure.)
Here’s another unedited excerpt of the “conversation”:
Just as an aside, these pitiful applications can’t think, and their operators should knock it off with the smarmy fake apologies and thanks. Also, anyone who consults them is clearly a fool.
But here’s the worst part. When I searched Google on the phrase, “17th century criticism of the printing press,” the results linked to Cowen’s fake-filled blog post! These published falsehoods have already polluted Google. It was a bit weird to realize, right then, that I am going to have to stop using Google for work, but it’s true. The breakneck deployment of half-baked AI, and its unthinking adoption by a load of credulous writers, means that Google—where, admittedly, I’ve found the quality of search results to be steadily deteriorating for years—is no longer a reliable starting point for research.
Criticism of AI chatbots from writers, teachers, and academics has been snowballing since the introduction of ChatGPT. Writing in The Guardian, journalism scholar Emily Bell expressed alarm at the “fake news frenzy” they’ve unleashed: “[They] have absolutely no commitment to the truth. Just think how rapidly a ChatGPT user could flood the internet with fake news stories that appear to have been written by humans.” So… this is already happening.
Again, it took me less than two minutes to access the original, correct, searchable text of The Advancement of Learning at the Internet Archive’s Open Library—for now, that is.
Unless the publishers’ lawsuit against the Internet Archive fails, that free, searchable online book will disappear—along with many millions of other valuable resources currently held at the Open Library. And until it is discovered and challenged, some incalculable amount of false information at Google will likely remain. (The Retreat of Learning, you might call it.)
The outcome of the lawsuit, hinging as it does on defining the legal ownership of digital books, may well determine the right of libraries to own and lend from their own collections, freely and without interference—whether those books are on paper, or digital.
At the heart of the dispute is the publishers’ contention that “ebooks are a fundamentally different products from physical book.” The Internet Archive loans its ebooks to patrons by scanning a paper book in its collection, storing away the paper copy, and loaning just the scan to one patron at a time, a common library practice known as Controlled Digital Lending, or CDL. The publishers claim that these ebooks are “infringing copies of the Publishers’ works that directly compete with the Publishers’ well-established markets for authorized consumer and library ebooks.” But in its brief in opposition to the publishers, the Internet Archive argues that its model preserves traditional library practice in a digital world. By conflating licensed ebooks with the Open Library’s scans of physical books, they argue, the publishers expose the lawsuit’s true goal: “Plaintiffs would like to force libraries and their patrons into a world in which books can only be accessed, never owned, and in which availability is subject to the rightsholders’ whim.”
In effect, the Internet Archive is fighting to prevent the devolution of ebooks into Netflix-like, un-ownable licensed products. An “authorized” licensed book that can’t be owned outright isn’t fundamentally a book at all; books that can only be licensed are impermanent object that can disappear from the virtual shelves of libraries for any number of reasons.
The stakes in this lawsuit have become clearer in the years since it was filed, as attacks against the freedom of individuals to read, write, teach, and learn have escalated—shading, not infrequently now, into threats of violence: Florida Governor Ron DeSantis taking aim at academic freedom on multiple fronts; literal book bannings and library closings; open aggression against school board members and librarians. Do we want to live in a world where books can disappear with one click of DeSantis’s mouse?
Jennie Rose Halperin, the director of Library Futures, a digital library policy and advocacy organization, told me: “If libraries do not maintain the right to purchase and lend materials digitally as well as physically on terms that are equitable and fair to the public, we risk further exacerbating divides in our democracy and society, as well as the continued privatization of information access. Just because a book is digital does not make it licensed software—a book is a book, in whatever form it takes.”
Libraries, it’s clear, need their traditional statutory protections now more than ever. The right of first sale, which allows libraries to own and loan the books in their own collections, in particular, must be preserved for digital books as well as print ones.
But not every library appears to understand these stakes. Vermont State University recently announced that it will be closing all its physical libraries and moving to an “all-digital” model, ostensibly to save money—though ebook price gouging scandals have been plaguing libraries and universities for years, prompting ongoing fights in the courts.
If Vermont State University’s plan takes effect this summer, as scheduled—and at the time of writing, there’s been no indication that they’re backing down—we’ll be seeing a whole university system at the mercy of publishers who can remove library access to any book they please, at the drop of a hat. These are economic, as well as political, disasters waiting to happen.
As Internet Archive founder Brewster Kahle wrote in an e-mail: “If the library only negotiates access licenses for their students to view publishers’ database products, is it a library anymore? Or is it a customer service department for corporate database products?”
In my lifetime, the tension between commercial and cultural imperatives in the world of books has never been more stark.
The future of digital culture must not be left in the hands of commercial interests, because corporations don’t protect or develop culture: They sell it. Which is fine, and healthy, so long as businesses stay in their lane—but they don’t. Again and again, corporate overreach like the lawsuit against the Internet Archive has shown that where there is more money to be made, business will all too happily interfere with schools, universities, and libraries—no matter the cost to the quality or utility or posterity of education, or art, or literature.
Hollywood and the music industry abound with examples of this imbalance. The stranglehold of commercial imperatives has already radically impoverished culture in the United States, as “works of art” are increasingly considered “intellectual property.” The pressure to produce blockbusters, hits and bestsellers drives the mega-marketing of increasingly mega-boring mega-sequels, sometimes featuring megastars and adapted from mega-bestsellers. New and innovative writers, directors, artists and musicians—who present a greater commercial risk—not only get less and less of the cultural pie; they have a harder time even getting to the table where the pie is cut. The desire to squeeze more and more profits out of ever-lengthening copyright terms means, too, that new artists are prevented from creating meaningful responses to the masterworks of the past—while the culture steadily grows poorer and poorer. Everywhere you look, considerations of profit are encroaching on innovation and creativity.
And now we have to worry about the safety and freedom of libraries in schools and universities, the integrity of digital archives, and the preservation of digital ownership rights, too. It’s high time for the pendulum to swing toward protecting cultural posterity; the courts should begin by ensuring the preservation of the Internet Archive. Let’s not forget what Francis Bacon actually had to say about consulting old books: “It was truly said, optimi consiliarii mortui [the best counsellors are the dead]: books will speak plain when counsellors blanch.”