If I believed in Hell and a “special place” reserved for certain villains, I would say that one of those suites in the stygian underworld is the destiny of all book burners. And lately, it seems that room is getting overcrowded. According to a recent story in The Guardian, “the ALA has been tracking bans for two decades and reported that 2021 was the worst year for attempted censorship yet, with 1,597 books challenged,” writes Maeve Higgins.
Higgins reports that certain conservative groups in the U.S. are targeting libraries through a variety of political mechanisms with the purpose of banning books that include or address LGBTQ+ rights, race, sexuality, and the usual catalog of verboten lit among the mouth-breathers. Meanwhile, the Neo Nazis and Proud Boys are simply showing up at library events with the purpose of intimidating staff and visitors.
Book bans are nothing new, of course, but if librarians are sentinels defying those forces, I would remind the leadership of the American Library Association (ALA) et al. that the authors are not only on the same side but are often directly in the crosshairs of censors. And what protects the author best is the market. When copies of Maus sold out after a Tennessee school board banned the book, the response was more than satisfying—it was important. Because that’s how the market protects the voice of Art Spiegelman and the voice of the next author who writes the next book some idiot wants to destroy.
I mention this because when it comes to copyright law, it’s almost as if the ALA and other library associations forget that behind that book about race or gender or the Holocaust—or whatever topic frightens the snowflakes on the far right—is an author. Maybe the author is gay or Black or trans or Jewish, or some combination of these and other experiences that are as worthy of expression through storytelling as any other. But the author’s financial reward for her labor is precarious at best.
The median income made from writing alone is $20,300 per year, and those who say that this is due to capitalism and the greed of publishers have no idea what they’re talking about. Even with its myriad imperfections, only a free market can produce the kind of diversity in literature and cultural works we enjoy in the U.S., and foundational to that market is the bundle of authorial rights protected by copyright law. It should be obvious that library organizations are the author’s natural ally on these matters, just as they stand shoulder-to-shoulder to oppose censorship. But sadly, the connection seems to elude the ALA and many of its cohorts.
To be clear, I do not believe that individual librarians tend to forget the authors. In fact, I am certain this is not the case. The individual librarian is often the author’s best friend and strongest advocate. But your local librarian is also not the person who decides which policies the ALA et al. pursue, and in the area of copyright law, these groups have wasted extraordinary time, energy, and money on efforts to weaken copyright rights in ways that would not only harm authors, but which would obviate the need for most libraries before long.
To be absolutely blunt about it, the library associations have been duped on copyright issues. Not because they are fools, but because they mean well. Their best intentions have been used against them by parties whose motives—whether ideological, financial, or both—demand opposition to the copyright rights of authors. For instance, the ALA has recently expended vast resources pursuing state legislation to undermine ebook licensing models, despite the fact that these bills are unconstitutional on their face and, when we look at the numbers, appear unnecessary to the purpose of serving library communities.
The library associations have also backed commercial ventures seeking to distort the fair use and first sale doctrines in copyright law, revealing a shortsightedness that is hard to fathom—both because it turns allies into antagonists, and because some of those commercial ventures would swallow the role of many libraries. Equally naïve is the tacit endorsement library groups have given to the Internet Archive’s invented theory of “Controlled Digital Lending,” which would aggravate the economic precarity of authors and would be hazardous to libraries everywhere.
If IA’s founder Brewster Kahle achieved his stated ambition to build a free repository for “every work ever created,” what do the library associations imagine happens next? While the number of professional writers would be decimated, libraries across the country would be shuttered as obsolete relics. After all, if one segment of a community will vote to defund the local library for hosting Drag Queen Story Time, and the readers in that same community can get everything from a central database on the web, who will pay to keep a library’s doors open and why?
And before long, which entity is really going to own and control that universal repository of everything? Google? Amazon? Meta? If you think localized book bans are bad, imagine Meta and its invisible star chamber influencing books the way they currently moderate comments on Facebook. I would think most librarians are wise enough students of history and current events to see where weakening authors’ rights can lead, which brings us to the question of who convinced these associations to pursue copyright boondoggles and make unnatural adversaries of authors?
Ivory tower academics and lobbyists who receive substantial funding from the tech industry are at the forefront of all efforts to weaken authors’ rights, including initiatives alleged to be in the interest of libraries. Just review the names of the amici who filed for the defendant in Hachette et al v. Internet Archive, and it will not take long to see the intersection of Big Tech money and advocacy of IA’s false claim to be a surrogate for “all libraries.” Such proximity to Silicon Valley should be a bright yellow flag for the ALA, but like the frog carrying the scorpion, they remain willfully blind to the true nature of that industry and its utopian promises.
Librarians on the front lines in the contemporary assault on literature should keep in mind that there is more than one way to prevent a book from being read; and censorship, infuriating as it is, has often been defeated by the market. A far more effective means to silence a multitude of writers would be to ensure that their books are never written in the first place, and one way to achieve that end is to weaken the copyright rights of authors and further limit their power to change the world.