Library Associations Pursue Misguided eBook Licensing Laws

woman reading ebook

Recently, the New York and Maryland state legislatures passed nearly identical eBook licensing bills (and Rhode Island had a sister bill in the works) responding to complaints of inequity by various library associations. Couched in the rhetoric of seeking “reasonable terms” on behalf of readers, and claiming to be neither anti-publisher nor anti-author, what the libraries have in fact advocated with these bills is an end run around copyright law. I say this because the key provisions of the legislation amount to state compulsory license regimes, which means they are almost certainly in conflict with federal statute.

The bills contain three mandates: 1) that publishers license eBooks to libraries at the same time they license them to the consumer market; 2) that publishers provide an unlimited number of licenses to libraries; and 3) that publishers make eBook licenses available “on reasonable terms.” While most publishers already choose to fulfill the first demand, the fact remains that any state law directing a publisher to make works available under any conditions undermines the exclusive rights of copyright owners as codified by federal law. Meanwhile, the ambiguity in the expression “reasonable terms” is likely to be a catalyst for a lot of unnecessary, and ultimately futile, drama related to these matters.

Although the state bills do not explicitly mention renegotiating licensing fees for libraries as a provision for arriving at “reasonable terms,” it is a matter of record that the library associations allege that library eBook licensing is too expensive. And it is clear from the press release issued by the Maryland Library Association that the libraries intend to negotiate lower licensing fees with the backing of state government, which begins to take on the color of a compulsory license regime, as stated above.

What the libraries will say in response is that they simply want eBooks licensed to them at the same rates as the consumer market, which is usually the point in the narrative when they introduce rhetorical statements about “fairness” and “access” and “underserved markets,” obfuscating the fact that eBook lending is objectively a different animal than eBook ­selling.

Buy a new eBook, and perhaps a whole family reads it for, say, $12. License that same eBook to a library system for the same price, and it is made freely available to perhaps hundreds of readers in a single year. It does not take deep knowledge of the publishing industry to see how those two paradigms are different. Now, add unlimited licensing on the day a title is released to the consumer market, and the publishers (and by extension authors) are being compelled by state law to effectively treat libraries as though they are ordinary consumers while, at the same time, accord them preferential treatment as public institutions designed for lending.

Consequently, we should not be surprised if the publishers litigate the constitutionality of these state bills on the grounds that they are preempted by federal copyright law. Section 106 of Title 17 unequivocally grants the exclusive rights to make works available on terms determined by the copyright owners. It is, therefore, almost impossible to imagine the federal court that will not find that state legislatures have no authority whatsoever to determine what constitutes “reasonable terms” for licensing copyrighted works to libraries or any other party.

The Politics of Information

Although these bills have solid bipartisan support in all three states for the moment, I suspect this has a more to do with the short-term politics of capitalizing on vague declarations like the Maryland Library Association alleging they “were shut out of the marketplace of ideas and information.” Assuming these bills are eventually defeated in federal court several years from now, I would not expect to see many of the legislators who voted for them losing any sleep over the issue. They will have scored political points and moved on.

And that brings us back to what I said at the beginning about how bewildering it is to watch library associations spend millions of dollars and tens of thousands of hours on potentially futile legislative agendas and, in the process, foster an antagonistic relationship with their only natural partners—publishers and authors. As a New York State resident, I would like to know exactly how onerous eBook licensing is relative to the resources being spent to lobby for these ill-fated state laws and similar initiatives.

And as an American citizen watching current events, I will unapologetically cast a jaundiced eye upon the libraries, or any other institution, that claims to serve the “marketplace of ideas and information” as a rationale for its policy agenda. In case the librarians aren’t following the headlines, ideas and information are in deep trouble, and not for lack of access. On the contrary, rampant conspiracy theories and absurd narratives counter to empirical evidence are being actively pursued and spread by tens of millions of Americans who have plenty of access and believe they are informing themselves. So, let’s drop the highfalutin rhetoric and talk brass tacks.

Libraries already license millions of eBook titles, including frontline and backlist books, and yet, according to market data, most avid readers still prefer buying physical copies. Moreover, library industry statistics indicate that the leading category in loaned material is cookbooks, followed by thrillers. Not that there is anything wrong with either, but libraries very likely play a more modest role in the “marketplace of ideas and information” than they like to claim while advocating changes to copyright law.

On this subject, if what many libraries are really responding to is that their most loyal visitors are complaining about being put on wait lists for the latest Harlan Coben thriller (meaning no disrespect to Mr. Coben), since when is this longstanding practice a hardship? At what point did libraries decide they are entitled to provide the immediate access offered by retailers while continuing to enjoy preferential treatment and statutory carveouts as institutions designed for free lending?

I think the answer to that is the moment everything went digital, the promise of instant access muddled everyone’s thinking and fostered a sense of entitlement to all works at the touch of a button, and at a price of free or almost free. Were this in fact the paradigm, it is a guarantee that certain authors would never write books again and that certain new authors would never write books in the first place.

Rightsholders in other categories (partly because libraries loan more than literary works through digital portals) should take note that these state bills are viewed by the library associations as one step in a larger agenda to amend—or for some parties, simply gut—American copyright law. As discussed in this post, the library groups hope to amend specific areas of the federal law while claiming that their agenda is neither anti-author nor anti-publisher.

But several of the proposals made by library associations (like advocating digital first sale) imply such a naïve understanding of the commercial digital market that they fail to recognize how, in the long run, the library advocates would only hasten the obsolescence of libraries themselves. So, perhaps the library associations’ resources would be better spent on renewed, good-faith negotiations with publishers, or, perhaps, collaborating to increase library funding. Because once upon a time, in a world before the invention of the eReader, publishers and libraries had mutual interests. And they still do.


Photo by: racorn

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