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The Dream Was Universal Access to Knowledge. The Result Was a Fiasco.


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Information wants to be free. That observation, first made in 1984, anticipated the internet and the world to come. It cost nothing to digitally reproduce data and words, and so we have them in numbing abundance.

Information also wants to be expensive. The right information at the right time can save a life, make a fortune, topple a government. Good information takes time and effort and money to produce.

Before it turned brutally divisive, before it alarmed librarians, even before the lawyers were unleashed, the latest battle between free and expensive information started with a charitable gesture.

Brewster Kahle runs the Internet Archive, a venerable tech nonprofit. In that miserable, frightening first month of the Covid pandemic, he had the notion to try to help students, researchers and general readers. He unveiled the National Emergency Library, a vast trove of digital books mostly unavailable elsewhere, and made access to it a breeze.

This good deed backfired spectacularly. Four publishers claimed “willful mass copyright infringement” and sued. They won. On Friday, the…



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