eBook Pledge: Making eBook markets sustainable for the long term

Our call to action!

Publishers: We ask that you sign up to the pledge.
Libraries and Consortia: We ask that you adopt these principles in your negotiations with publishers.
Authors: We ask that you adopt these principles in your negotiations and discussions with publishers.

eBooks are a vitally important part of the 21st century knowledge landscape. They provide users of public, school, academic and research libraries with benefits not possible with paper books – from faster and more diverse methods of access to a more inclusive learning experience.

Although lending is enshrined in copyright law the move to licensed eBooks has undermined this, as well as many other things we once took for granted, including stable pricing, preservation and inter-library loan. Furthermore, according to one study, many European authors  of fiction and other trade titles are not paid royalties by their publishers for the licences sold to libraries.

These conditions illustrate that eBook markets today are neither sustainable nor working to support the wider good by undermining libraries and curtailing education, research and access to culture.

To rectify these problems, today we launch an eBook pledge calling on publishers to sign up and adopt a set of principles laid out therein, while of course continuing to support more user-friendly models, including open eBooks. We also call on libraries and consortia to adopt the eBook pledge principles when negotiating with publishers. By making these principles part of the agreements they sign, including the rights to acquire titles, engage in collection development, preserve collections, and lend to the public and other libraries, libraries can continue to be beacons for the dissemination of knowledge in the 21st Century.

The pledge has been prepared in the context of the Knowledge Rights 21 Programme with the engagement of the Authors Alliance and Library Futures. We are organisations that work to promote constructive relationships and the upholding of mutual interests between libraries and publishers in the eBook space, as well as to uphold the interest authors have in reaching new readers.

Over centuries, copyright laws have emerged and evolved as a set of norms and rules for how books and other materials can be used. At least according to the stated goals of the first copyright act – the 1710 Statute of Anne – the idea was to govern information flows in a way that would encourage learning.

These norms have, more or less effectively, worked to find a balance that both compensates authors as well as  publishers for their investments, without unduly holding back use by the wider population, for learning, scientific research, access to culture etc – thus  in turn supporting further creativity.

Importantly, they have been rules backed  by the force of law , meaning that regardless of how big or small a publisher or user is, they apply equally.

At least, that’s the case in the world of physical books. The same cannot be said in the digital world, where the shift to licensing has effectively undermined the regimes carefully put in place over the last few centuries. A publisher can refuse to license a library outright. Even where this isn’t the case, contracts frequently undermine what  is allowed for under copyright law. In the case of libraries and eBook contracts, this often means the right to preserve, or undertake inter-library loan are removed. Furthermore, eBooks are frequently much more expensive than a paper book and a library frequently has to buy the same title again and again, playing havoc with library and university budgets. 

This is all a consequence of a move from sales to licensing as a model for providing access. It gives a lot more power – or responsibility – to publishers to redefine the norms of access and use as set out above.

This brings risks. It can be tempting, especially when there is an imbalance in negotiating power, to look to maximise short-term gains, even when this risks undermining wider public interest goals and the long term sustainability of markets.

Unfortunately, this is happening systematically, and it poses a threat to the viability and sustainability of libraries. When libraries are not able to acquire and give access to books and other materials in a sustainable manner, their entire reason for being is put into question.

So what’s the solution?

One is to return to the original laws that governed copyright, and make sure that they also apply to digital materials. This can be done by making sure copyright law covers the full necessary range or rights, render contradictory contract terms and digital locks null and void, while also avoiding other measures that stand in the way of digital working by libraries and their patrons.

But a quicker way is simply for publishers and other rightholders themselves to commit to respecting these long-standing norms on a voluntary basis. Through this, they can avoid damaging irreparably the place of libraries in building a strong research and reading culture which is their societal and statutory role and function.

This doesn’t need to be difficult, and indeed, given the huge complexity of licensing agreements offered, will lead to greater simplicity for all parties.

This is why the three organisations who have developed the pledge very much hope that publishers will sign up to it.  The pledge sets out a simple set of provisions that safeguard the place and role of libraries here and into the future. The adoption of these steps – which safeguard the long-standing status quo in copyright – will be a step towards the sustainability, not just of libraries, but of the reading, education and research sectors as a whole.

Publishers:  We ask that you sign up to the pledge.

Libraries and Consortia: We ask that you adopt these principles in your negotiations with publishers.

Authors: We ask that you adopt these principles in your negotiations and discussions with publishers.

For further information about the pledge please contact info@knowledgerights21.org