Dec 21, 2021 - Technology

Libraries enlist states in fight over ebook rules

Illustration of a hand cursor resting on the pages of an open book.
Illustration: Shoshana Gordon/Axios

Libraries are successfully convincing state legislatures to help them win better terms for ebook licenses from Amazon and other publishers.

Why it matters: Libraries say it is crucial for them to continue to service their communities, especially as digital access to books became even more important during the pandemic.

  • "What a tragedy it would be if in a digital context, Americans and American library users have less access to knowledge and information than they did in the analog era," John Bracken, executive director of the Digital Public Library of America, told Axios.

What's happening: A Maryland law set to take effect in January and a similar bill in New York would require publishers that sell ebooks to consumers to also license them to libraries on reasonable terms.

  • Libraries pushed for the legislation because they say publishers charge high prices, require re-purchases of licenses, limit the ability to circulate digital copies, and, until recently in Amazon's case, refuse to license some ebooks to libraries at all.
  • "We've had enough of this," Alan Inouye, senior director of public policy & government relations for the American Library Association, told Axios. "Libraries really need to have reasonable access."

Details: The Maryland law and New York bill say it is not reasonable to limit the number of ebook licenses libraries can buy at the same date they are available to the general public.

By the numbers: OverDrive, a digital reading platform for libraries and schools, said 2020 was a record-setting year for digital checkouts, and growth continued in 2021, CEO Steve Potash told Axios.

  • Total digital book lending will exceed 500 million in 2021, Potash said, up from 430 million in 2020.
  • More flexible licensing models — such as allowing simultaneous checkouts of the same digital copy — helped contribute to the increase, Potash said.

The other side: Publishers' trade group the Association of American Publishers (AAP) opposes the measures, and filed a lawsuit this month to overturn Maryland's law.

  • AAP says the law violates federal copyright protections by creating a "shadow copyright act" that gives libraries "unprecedented control" over transactions with publishers.
  • "It's true that these bills would force more works on more immediate terms at devalued pricing," Maria Pallante, president of AAP and former head of the U.S. Copyright Office, told Axios.
  • "Where we disagree is if that's good for the sustainability of the publishing industry, or whether it's lawful."

Between the lines: The publishers' lawsuit in Maryland serves as a warning shot to New York Gov. Kathy Hochul, who has yet to sign the state's bill into law.

  • A spokesperson for Hochul's office told Axios they are reviewing the legislation, which has already passed the state legislature.

Flashback: The American Library Association voiced its complaints against Amazon and other major publishing firms in 2019 as part of the House Judiciary Committee's digital markets investigation.

  • Libraries were frustrated over a Macmillan Publishers policy to restrict ebook sales to libraries during the first weeks of publications, a policy the publisher changed in 2020.
  • Additionally, Amazon had refused to make ebooks from its own publishing house available to libraries. Amazon Publishing has since struck a deal with nonprofit distributor Digital Public Library of America (DPLA).
  • "Thousands of titles from the Amazon Publishing catalog are available to libraries in ebook through DPLA now, with thousands more coming in the near future," the Amazon spokesperson said.
  • An Amazon spokesperson declined to comment on the state measures.

What's next: Massachusetts and Rhode Island both are considering similar measures, Inouye noted, and more states could pick up the proposals as they convene for their sessions next year.

  • "Libraries should have reasonable access to digital books, not for free, to pay the market price," Inouye said. "It goes through pretty easily, because it's kind of commonsense."
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