Why is the Internet Archive Streaming Frank Sinatra and Chuck Berry Without a License?

Why is the music business picking on Brewster Kahle? All the technology activist wants to do with the Internet Archive, which he founded in 1996 and still chairs the board of, is create a digital library that offers “universal access to knowledge.” Isn’t that the promise of the digital age — that anyone with an internet connection can access anything ever created?

Turns out it’s more complicated than that. On Aug. 11, Universal Music, Sony Music and Concord Music filed a lawsuit, managed by the RIAA, against the Internet Archive, Kahle’s foundation, Kahle himself and an audio archivist who worked on the project, for infringing the copyrights to old recordings that the Internet Archive makes available through its “Great 78s” project to digitize old recordings originally issued as 78rpm records.

Already, in June 2020, four big book publishers had sued the Internet Archive for making available for a limited time copy-protected digital versions of books — first as many as it had in its collection or those of its partners, then during the pandemic, with its National Emergency Library, as many as users wanted. The publishers won on summary judgement, although the Internet Archive has said it will appeal.

The Internet Archive does lot of worthwhile work: its Wayback Machine tracks old web pages, offers access to considerable information in the public domain, and boasts an expansive collection of live Grateful Dead recordings. The Great 78s project makes available some old recordings that might otherwise be lost, but according to the RIAA lawsuit it also offers streaming access to plenty of recordings that are big business, including Bing Crosby’s iconic version of “White Christmas” — by some measures the most popular recordings of the 20th century — plus Buddy Holly’s “Peggy Sue,” Chuck Berry’s “Roll Over Beethoven” and Frank Sinatra’s “I’ve Got the World on a String.” The 78, may be an obscure format, but some of the music originally released that way is still relatively popular.

The Internet Archive responded in a blog post that it’s a “lawsuit targeting obsolete media.” “When people want to listen to music they go to Spotify,” Kahle said in a statement on the blog. (The Internet Archive did not comment other than pointing to this post.) “When people want to study 78rpm sound recordings as they were originally created, they go to libraries like the Internet Archive. Both are needed. There shouldn’t be conflict here.”

Except that many of those “78rpm sound recordings” aren’t obsolete at all — they’re the exact same recordings that are on Spotify, plus Apple Music and other streaming services. The versions available on the Internet Archive sound scratchy, but the recordings themselves weren’t originally created that way, and the wear on the particular 78s that were digitized by the archive is less about the history of recorded music than about how careful a particular person was with his or her records.

Kahle presents himself as a “digital librarian” who’s making books — and music and other media — available the way libraries always have. But it’s worth remembering that the legal arguments for the Internet Archive’s book-lending program aren’t based on the provision of copyright law that provides exceptions for libraries. Instead, the archive’s legal claim is that copying and distributing books temporarily is fair use. Which means that, if the Internet Archive had won, any library — or, importantly, perhaps any nonprofit entity that defined itself that way, or maybe any entity at all — could copy books it had purchased in order to distribute them. (The archive, in turn, says that its loss is a disaster for libraries, since they have to license books from publishers; but shouldn’t libraries — an essential public good — be funded by the public in a way that’s fair to creators and rightsholders?) Kahle, who has campaigned for years against what he sees as the excesses of copyright, seems to want to change the law.

“The fact that you own a particular copy doesn’t mean that you can make and distribute copies of that copy — this is basic copyright law,” said Maria Pallante, chief executive of the Association of American Publishers (AAP), which helped to guide the publishers’ lawsuit. “They were trying to bloat fair use, while also asserting a first sale defense that applies only to tangible goods, not bootleg digital files.”

The RIAA is suing at least partly to establish case law behind the part of the 2018 Music Modernization Act, which extended federal copyright protection to recordings made before 1972, which were previously only covered under state law. The labels may also want to collect damages: Since statutory damages for willful infringement can be set by judges or juries at up to $150,000, this case could potentially cost the Internet Archive as much as $412 million. “This is the kind of egregious behavior that the Music Modernization Act was intended to address,” says RIAA CEO Mitch Glazier.

Recordings were only covered under state law until the Copyright Act of 1976, but it wasn’t retroactive. And although some opponents of copyright characterized the Music Modernization Act as a land grab by media companies, that doesn’t hold up: Some state laws made it unclear whether copyright protection ever lapsed at all. Indeed, one reason that sound recordings copyrights were federalized in the first place was to help libraries and archives take advantage of the exceptions and limitations that exist in federal copyright legislation, including fair use and specific exceptions for libraries and archives.

As it happens, the subject of federal copyright protection for pre-1972 recordings was studied in a 2011 report by the Register of Copyrights, and substantial attention was devoted to “challenges of preservation and access.” “Substantively,” the report recommended, “the use of section 108 and the fair use exception should encourage more preservation and public access because they provide time—tested rules with which libraries and archives have experience.”

The law under which the Internet Archive is being sued was actually set up partly to help it and other archives, especially in its “orphan works” provision, the result of a compromise between Music Modernization Act proponents and opponents, that allows organizations to use pre-1972 recordings for non-commercial purposes after checking to make sure they’re not in commercial use. (There’s a procedure for this.) If the Great 78s project really intends to make available music that is in danger of disappearing, the law allows for that. Why aren’t Kahle and the Archive following it? It’s hard to imagine that Kahle doesn’t understand the law.

And that’s why the music business is picking on Brewster Kahle — because it sometimes seems as though the Internet Archive is as much about pushing the boundaries of copyright law as it is about preserving creative works in the first place. Libraries play a crucial role in any democratic society, and Kahle and the archive do a lot of important work. But so do the performers and songwriters — and, yes, the labels and publishers — who made all of these recordings possible in the first place.

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