What Kind of Writer Indeed?

In a recent post entitled What Kind of Writer Accuses Libraries of Stealing?, Maria Bustillos stakes out a wide swath of moral high ground in defense of Controlled Digital Lending (CDL). CDL is a theory that libraries are allowed, within the boundaries of U.S. copyright law, to scan physical copies of legally obtained books and then loan the digital copies to one reader at a time, controlled by technical measures to prevent theft or unlicensed distribution.

Conceived by legal scholar and librarian Michelle Wu (and advocated by library associations and anti-copyright ideologues alike), CDL looks reasonable on the surface but is actually more complicated than Bustillos et al either recognize or are willing to admit. Nothing wrong with having an opinion, of course, but to pretend that the ebook market is not distinctive and then call anyone who points to the complexities “greedy and unethical” is just foot-stomping.[1]

In that spirit, Bustillos’s post is a response to a Twitter squabble that began with some pushback by Neil Turkewitz to her tweet praising the Internet Archive and defending CDL. Turkewitz tagged authors John Degen and T. J. Stiles along with the Authors Guild, which Bustillos refers to as summoning “a brigade,” and after describing her interactions with Stiles and the AG, she writes …

As a lifelong fan and beneficiary of libraries, as well as a working writer, I find the suggestion that libraries are trying to steal from writers very very offensive. I see no evidence for it. CDL doesn’t “devalue the labor of working authors” in the slightest. It protects and helps us, by codifying simple rules for preserving our work, and making it legally available to the public to try out through libraries.

Based on that paragraph, I would assume that Bustillos is unaware of, rather than intentionally obfuscating the much broader copyright narrative in which CDL is a small fragment. Certainly, she reveals more attitude than understanding when she writes that the Authors Guild litigation against Hathi Trust (2013) is “at heart” the same issue in the lawsuit filed by the publishers against Internet Archive (2020). Because the cases are not comparable.

Hathi Trust created a searchable database and made certain works accessible to persons with disabilities but did not make whole works under copyright available to the general public. By contrast, IA is being sued because it arbitrarily distributed over a million in-copyright books without license or even the controls called for in CDL. The irony here is that if Bustillos, or anyone else, wants to assert that CDL is narrow and reasonable, IA is the last organization to cite as an ally because it did not even respect the boundaries of CDL—and because IA founder Brewster Kahle’s anti-copyright vision is expansive. But Bustillos reveals that perhaps her sights look beyond CDL as well when she writes …

The trend started with software—you used to be able to own Photoshop and Office, but now you have to rent them—and has spread to movies, music and other media. The perpetual annuity model, needless to say, is very popular with Wall Street. Available evidence suggests that the endgame here, too, is eventually to go over entirely to a books-for-rent model.

Here again, Bustillos expresses more attitude than cogent argument that has much, if anything, do with CDL. It’s true that we now license, for instance, Microsoft Office month-to-month instead of purchasing the software, but price-wise, it’s about the same or less than it used to be, and overall convenience and security is generally better than the days when we had to buy upgrades delivered in boxes full of disks.

More to the point, ebooks are not comparable to software vis-a-vis upgrades, etc., but that’s why I highlighted the paragraph—because Bustillos is making a loose comparison for emotional impact rather than presenting a serious case for her position on CDL. Moreover, she endorses, perhaps inadvertently, an enthusiasm for CDL which is not limited to the mechanisms in that proposal but is intertwined with a broader criticism of licensing regimes throughout the digital market.

Speaking of apples and oranges, Bustillos inscrutably contrasts Neil Gaiman’s 2011 observations that piracy led to discovery and sales of his books against comments by Degen and Stiles about CDL in 2022. She cites Gaiman to make the point that lending books, especially by libraries, should not be seen as lost sales. This is generally true but is also a misdirection away from the crux of the debate over the mechanisms proposed by CDL—to say nothing of the broader anti-copyright strategy of which CDL is one prong. Further, it shows poor taste to cherrypick an unrelated comment made by a multimillionaire author (because he has greatly benefitted from the copyright system) in order to disparage authors of more modest income, who are intimately engaged with the copyright narrative nearly every day.

Perhaps Bustillos is unaware of the broader agenda being pushed by the scholars, ideologues, and lobbyists with whom she is breaking bread in her post. Even if CDL were a modest and simple proposal on its own, it almost doesn’t matter at this point because the library associations are engaged in a multi-level campaign against core principles of copyright law, and which would affect more than ebooks.

As discussed recently, the library associations have lobbied for legislation in six states proposing compulsory licenses for ebooks in a manner that is so clearly preempted by federal law that New York’s governor already vetoed its bill on that basis alone. So, why are these groups spending millions to pass legislation that is doomed to fail on constitutional grounds? Probably because failing in the states is a well-known path to lobby Congress to change the federal law.

So, as long as we’re fighting over the moral high ground, let’s consider the cost to state taxpayers to pass and defend ill-fated legislation and then compare that to the cost of ebook licensing from which the taxpayer is allegedly being rescued. Quick math:  400 titles x $32 per title/year x 25 library systems = $320,000/year per state. [2] What will Maryland spend to lose the lawsuit it now faces with the publishers over enforcement of its ebook bill?

I’m not saying I know exactly how the numbers shake out, but the library associations et al don’t present their economic complaint in economic terms in the first place. Like Bustillos, they generally vilify publishers, ignore the complexity of a system that includes many kinds of authors, and pretty much make a hash of copyright law in the process. The one thing Bustillos said with which I do agree is that Twitter fights are generally useless, but then I don’t know why she said that as a prelude to writing a long Twitter rant expressing more dudgeon than knowledge regarding these issues.


[1] Read Section 108 of the Copyright Act sometime, and if you don’t fall asleep, you will notice the strict and narrow conditions under which libraries are allowed to make or distribute copies of certain types of works.

[2] For reference, NYS has 23 library systems.

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