Fear and Loathing in the Library eBook Market

After the drive to facilitate access to content in the first year of the pandemic, 2021 has seen a marked intensification in efforts to put limits on the possibilities open to libraries.

In October, the Knowledge Rights 21 Programme already offered support to colleagues in the German library field who were facing a strong and coordinated effort by right holders to oppose an effort to guarantee the right for libraries to buy and lend eBooks on reasonable terms.  

There, the effort by libraries continues to pass into law a proposal which would do just this, and which had already seen agreement from the Bundresrat, ahead of Federal elections.

In its story then, Knowledge Rights 21 underlined how important it is for libraries to be able to pursue their missions to give equitable access to knowledge, education, research and culture in a digital age.

Yet this is not the only very visible drive to block or reverse legislative change that would guarantee the ability of libraries to do their jobs.

Recently, in the United States, the American Association of Publishers has launched an effort to declare unconstitutional a law in the State of Maryland that would also provide for reasonable terms for libraries. This is happening, despite the view of the Register of Copyrights that there was no infringement of constitutional rights.

There is also the ongoing case against the Internet Archive, not just against its National Emergency Library, but also against its Open Library – the basis of the Controlled Digital Lending operation that gives readers access to materials that simply may not otherwise be available to them otherwise, while maintaining strict controls to limit circulation.

The Internet Archive has also been involved in another case – an angry reaction to a proposal to place books from the National Library of New Zealand in the Open Library. These books would otherwise have risked being discarded and so lost for ever. Rather than support access to this heritage, rightholder organizations took a position that that implies a preference for destruction than use.

Not all efforts are so visible. A more insidious effort to undermine libraires comes in the sharp increases seen in the prices faced by libraries in acquiring some electronic resources, not least textbooks.

Despite access to textbooks in libraries being essential for less well-off students who cannot buy them themselves, this would be evidence of a drive to exclude libraries from the picture completely. This would not only have equity implications, but also of course make it harder to achieve other goals delivered by libraries, such as ensuring preservation and supporting research.

All of these efforts appear to a point to a new readiness to attack libraries and their work, and to question their role in the digital age. Yet as the pandemic has demonstrated, the ability of libraries to operate in a digital environment is essential, acting as a guarantor of wider public interest goals, and helping to avoid the market failures that unregulated exclusive rights inevitably create.

It is far from sure, of course, that these decisions are being taken on the basis of any firm evidence. Assumptions are easily made about the impact of libraries’ activities on markets, but these have been rejected time and time again by the facts on the ground. They also often fail to take into account the value of ensuring equitable access to education, research and culture.

The resistance of rightholders to providing numbers to back up their claims in the Internet Archive case, is perhaps telling. The results of the request by Senator Wyden to share information will be also.

Perhaps understandably, there is an element of fear for the future – although this is not one born out by the turnover of the publishing sector – as well as a loathing of digital platforms such as Google and Amazon among rightholder organisations. Nonetheless, neither provide a good reason for restricting the work of libraries.

This all underlines the need to put library access to eBooks onto a more solid, and positive footing. The Knowledge Rights 21 Programme will support efforts to ensure that libraries benefit from a guarantee in law of the possibility to lend eBooks, opening the way to discussions between libraries and rightholders about how this access can happen in a more effective way, rather than just whether it should happen at all.  

To get there, it will also commission work looking, from the economic point of view, at the functioning of eBook markets, both in the trade and scholarly sectors, helping to ensure that these discussions take place on the basis of fact, not fear. 

Photo credits: Photo by ja ma on Unsplash

11 February 2022