Controlled Digital Lending is a Dubious Proposal in Every Sense

On March 24, the court in Hachette et al. v. Internet Archive wholly rejected IA’s fair use defense constructed on the theory called Controlled Digital Lending (CDL). Prior to and since that ruling, various parties have tried to characterize this case as an attack by the publishers against the core function of libraries, alleging that libraries either already depend, or will come to depend, on CDL to meet the needs of communities in the digital age.

It is easy to promote a message that says Library good. Publisher bad. And I get why various people, including policymakers and librarians, might respond to the slogan. But the populist message obscures what a convoluted, if not insidious, proposal CDL truly is. While it may be true that select libraries engage in limited activities, long exempted by statute, which certain vested interests now describe as akin to CDL, it is erroneous to suggest that CDL, as envisioned by its proponents, is inherent to library operations. On the contrary, it is a complicated and expensive proposal—even if it were legal.

The CDL theory, based on ideas first proposed by Professor Michelle Wu (Georgetown University), is fleshed out and advocated in a 2018 white paper written by Kyle Courtney (Library Futures Chair) and David R. Hansen (Authors Alliance Executive Director). According to their reading of the fair use doctrine in conjunction with first sale doctrine,[1] Courtney and Hansen argue that libraries are legally permitted to erect their own ebook lending models by digitizing and then loaning digital books based on the number of legally obtained physical copies in the collection.

On its face, the concept sounds fair-minded and progressive—hypothetically adding new digital access while allowing the library to bypass (i.e., not pay for) current ebook licensing/lending regimes like OverDrive. And according to the theory, CDL will not disrupt the authors’ interests because it purports to maintain, rather than alter, longstanding copyright doctrine. Who wouldn’t endorse that from the sound of it? Candidly, someone who is not well-versed in copyright law or contemplating the practical implications of the CDL model.

Sparing readers a detailed breakdown of the legal constructs in the 42-page white paper, suffice to say, the keystone argument—a fair use defense riding on the first sale doctrine—was unequivocally rejected by the court in Hachette last month because the central points had already been made and rejected by this same circuit in contemporary cases.[2] In fact, CDL proponents may not be thrilled that Internet Archive was the first (and perhaps the last) institution to represent their theory in court because, even with millions in revenue, IA failed to implement the “controlled” part of the model.[3]

This begs an important question for libraries: if IA is their Galahad in the quest for CDL, why does it fail operationally to implement the model? That the underlying legal theory would fail was hardly in doubt, and this alone should doom CDL as a consideration for any library. But it is further notable that, even if CDL were legal in some form, implementing it would likely be more costly than the current ebook lending regime the library would be circumventing.

CDL Would Not be Free or Liability Free

Launching a CDL model, as set forth in the white paper, implies considerable expense, requiring either a library-developed system or paying to use a system developed by a third party. Presumably, the CDL folks imagined that Internet Archive would be that third party, but as that organization failed to adhere to the controls in the model, this should prompt librarians to consider what it would cost to adopt “real” CDL, and for what purpose.

Without addressing the practical implications of a holistic, auditable CDL system, proponents appear to recommend that libraries invest substantial resources in a new, complex model to manage physical and digital book lending and then wait to see if it gets sued. Because, astoundingly, the white paper contains a whole section advising libraries as to how they might limit risk when implementing CDL. It must be nice to sit in an office at an elite law school, devise a hypothesis that some proscribed conduct is “legal,” and then suggest somebody else try it to find out. And all this fuss, cost, and opportunity cost is to circumvent existing models that make ebooks available for about a dollar or less per loan?

The Future of Libraries is Not About eBooks

Finally, it cannot be ignored that the sustainability of libraries does not lie in providing more access to digital books and other materials via websites. Libraries are physical spaces that play important and diverse roles in each community, and their future depends on maintaining relevance as physical spaces operated by professionals with certain skills and sensitivities to local needs. Whether that means story time for children or hosting career counselors for adults or a thousand other initiatives, digital book lending is not a community connecting activity any more than shopping on Amazon is a social experience.

If ebook loans become too prominent a feature of a library system, those physical spaces and professional librarians will no longer be needed (i.e., funded). And in case it isn’t obvious by now, digital platforms tend to swallow independent institutions. Much like internet consolidation has nearly exterminated the local and independent newspaper, a similar consolidation of reading material into a more centralized, globally accessible network (as envisioned by Internet Archive’s Brewster Kahle) would be fatal to the local library as a lending institution.

Libraries should spend their limited resources on building and maintaining personal relationships with communities rather than waste time with complicated and erroneous workarounds to copyright rights. Frankly, the well-funded academics and organizations peddling CDL would do more good for libraries if they just hosted a damn bake sale.


[1] Specifically, the paper argues that factor one of the fair use test favors CDL because its “purpose” is to fulfill the intent of the first sale doctrine—and then, they argue this is further bolstered because libraries are not commercial entities.

[2] e.g., ReDigi, TVEyes.

[3] For instance, the CDL paper does not envision an unaccountable system whereby physical books are stored in shipping containers as the basis for digital copy loans. Internet Archive does this.

Photo by: JackF

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