For years, I have been a very regular user of the Internet Archive, archive.org. It has an incredible collection of digitized resources that I used to have to go to libraries to get, or I had to hire researchers to obtain those items for me. These items are often rare because they’re old and were just not generally available without a lot of trouble and expense. Now, with the Internet Archive, those materials are available at my fingertips. I can browse. I can search. I can print things out. I can download them to my computer. For public domain materials that are the lifeblood of my research and writing, the Internet Archive is absolutely indispensable, and there are times when I use it multiple times per week–sometimes, multiple times per day.
But it also has a terrible downside.
The other day, after I realized that I hadn’t done so in a while, I searched my name on the Internet Archive, and there were eleven different versions of my copyrighted works there in full form, available to anyone who wanted to use them, with absolutely no compensation to me as the creator. The works available included my Buford at Gettysburg book, One Continuous Fight, Plenty of Blame to Go Around, TWO different versions of Little Phil, and my Trevilian Station book. Anyone could “borrow” them through this nonsensical fiction that they have set up that allows people to obtain my intellectual property for absolutely nothing. I have never once agreed to have my intellectual property given away for free, and I most assuredly have never authorized the Internet Archive to offer my intellectual property to the world for free.
The truth is that, except for extremely rare instances, books about the Civil War sell in small quantities. The most I’ve ever sold of one of my books–over a period of 15 years–is about 15,000 copies. Most sell less than 2500 copies. It’s a good thing that this is not how I make my living, because if it was, we’d be living in a cardboard box under an overpass somewhere.
I don’t do this to get rich–I do it to scratch my teaching itch and because researching and writing about it is how I really learn a subject. At the same time, I spend a lot of money researching these books, sometimes paying for the right to use copyrighted images, and to have maps drawn. These things cost money–it’s not unusual for me to spend more than $5000 to get a book ready to go to the publisher. I don’t get paid advances for my work. I recoup the money that I spend through sales of the books–either those I sell myself, or from royalties generated by sales by others. If I buy books to sell myself, I typically have to pay somewhere between 50-60% of the retail price to buy them, meaning that I make about 40% of the sale price as profit. For a typical softcover book that sells for $19.95, that means that I make about $8.00 per book. If I’m relying on royalties, I get 10% of the sales to others. If it’s a collaboration with a friend, like my works with Dave Powell or Scott Mingus, I get 5%, as does my co-author. And those royalties are often paid once per year, at the end of the year.
In short, it often takes a lot of sales for me to simply break even on these projects. Breaking even is my goal for pretty much every book that I research and write; if I make a profit, that’s dandy and it makes Susan happy. But, in the end, I’m hoping for a net zero. Sometimes, I get there. Sometimes, I don’t.
So, having my work available to the world for free WITHOUT my permission is incredibly offensive to me, and I hope you can now see why. It royally pisses me off, and when I saw 11 of my books available for free on the Internet Archive the other day, I just about blew a gasket.
Under copyright law, I have the right to demand that the infringing material be removed, and I did so. I gave them 48 hours to remove the material, or I told them that I would file suit for copyright infringement. And I meant it. The statutory penalty for intentional copyright infringement is up to $150,000 per instance of intentional infringement, plus attorney’s fees. With 11 of my books available, the potential damages were massive, and I reminded them of that. Less than 48 hours later, they were all removed.
Sadly, this is about the fourth time I’ve had to do this with the Internet Archive. They gleefully intentionally infringe for as long as they can get away with it. Once you call them on it, they will remove the material, but the burden is on authors to police their copyrights. My advice to all of my author friends is to regularly check to see whether your work is being infringed there. If it is, demand that they remove the infringing material, and if you need help drafting that demand, ask me, and I will gladly assist you in drafting the demand. If they fail to remove it, be prepared to sue to enforce your intellectual property rights.
So, to bring this back to the beginning of this long-winded rant, I have nothing but terribly mixed feelings about the Internet Archive. As a repository of public domain material, it’s absolutely invaluable and a true motherlode of materials that just aren’t available anywhere else, and, for that reason, it’s a real treasure trove for those who research and write. The irony of my extensive use of it for those purposes is not lost on me.
But, at the same time, they’re a bunch of intentional infringers of copyright rights without the slightest bit of guilt or remorse, and you have to police the website regularly to protect your copyrighted material, as the onus is on us authors to do so. Shame on me for letting it go long enough for 11 of my titles to appear there. That won’t happen again.
Fellow authors, let this be a cautionary tale for you. And for those of you who are consumers of what we produce, PLEASE don’t abet their infringements by participating in the ripping off of our hard work.