Authors denounce publishers’ lawsuit against ‘Open Library’ and push for new eBook policies
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this report included an author among those who signed the letter who had his name removed before the list was made public.
Hundreds of authors have signed a letter criticizing major publishers’ lawsuit against a free digital library and urging publishers to update their policies to allow libraries to buy copies of e-books.
The open letter published Thursday escalates the battle librarians and digital rights group Fight for the Future are waging against publishers over access to e-books, an issue librarians say has become increasingly more important due to spikes in e-book lending since the start of the covid19 pandemic.
More than 300 authors, including “Coraline” author Neil Gaiman, signed the letter, organized by Fight for the Future, calling on publishers and book industry associations to end lawsuits that, according to the authors, are intended to “intimidate libraries”.
“We urge all those engaged in the work of getting books into the hands of readers to act in the interests of all authors, including the long-marginalized, in-between, and emerging authors who librarians have championed for decades,” they wrote.
The letter calls for a lawsuit by four publishers, Hachette Book Group, Harper Collins, John Wiley & Sons and Penguin Random House, filed against the Internet Archive’s open library.
The Internet Archive Open Library operates differently in lending digital copies of books than traditional libraries, in that it does not acquire eBooks through publishers.
Instead, the organization runs the open library by scanning physical copies of owned books and lending them out through a process librarians call controlled digital lending. Books are loaned out on a timed basis and the number of digitized digital copies available to customers is limited to the number of physical copies the organization has. Physical copies are also in storage and not in rotation, which means the digital copy of each takes its place.
But publishers suing the Internet Archive argue the process violates copyright law by creating a new digital copy of the book. Terrence Hart, general counsel for the Association of American Publishers, which represents all of the publishers named in the lawsuit, released a statement criticizing the letter organized by Fight for the Future.
“The fact that authors and publishers support libraries is undisputed and certainly not at issue in the infringement case against the Internet Archive, which is not a library,” Hart said in a statement.
“If an author chooses to allow copying from printed books into e-books, that is a choice they are entitled to make for their own works. The Internet Archive deprives authors of that choice,” Hart added.
Hart previously told The Hill that the Open Library was a “pirate site” rather than a library.
“This lawsuit aims to stop systematic theft, and the Internet Archives is a pirate site that does not act the way legitimate libraries do by paying for the e-books they run and supporting authors and publishers” , Hart said in an interview with The Hill this summer.
The Association of American Publishers argues that the Internet Archive’s alleged violation of copyright law reduces the profits authors would make from selling e-books.
At the heart of the problem is how publishers sell copies of books to libraries. Or rather, that they do not sell them to institutions.
Publishers have licensing agreements with libraries that allow them to lend books on terms that require copies of e-books to be released for a certain period or for a certain number of print runs. Once that hour or number of draws is reached, libraries must re-enter licensing agreements.
Librarians say the process makes it more expensive for customers to acquire e-books than traditional books, which they can buy at a standard price and distribute as long as the book holds up.
“Generally speaking, a quality hardcover certainly, and even some good quality paperbacks, will outlast the license. So, at a much cheaper price, you’ll get a lot more for your money,” said Michael Blackwell, director of St. Mary’s County Library in Maryland and organizer of the Reader’s First group.
Blackwell said he’s seen physical copies of books that will last on the shelf for over 100 print runs and stay on the shelf in constant circulation for four or five years. Even after a book can no longer circulate on the shelf, it can be sold, he said.
The more than 300 authors who signed Thursday’s letter urged publishers to drop this method of licensing e-books to libraries.
“[Publishers should] enshrine the right of libraries to permanently own and retain books, and to purchase such permanent copies on reasonable terms, regardless of format,” they wrote.
“It is high time to determine a way forward that is fair to libraries and authors, including a perpetual model of digital ownership based on the cost of maintaining a print edition,” they added.
But publishers say selling e-books to libraries the same way physical books are sold and loaned would cut into authors’ profits.
Hart described lending e-books as having less “friction” than traditional books, because they are not physically handled between customers, and since customers can access and return e-books from anywhere with their own personal device.
“Publishers have licensed the books to allow libraries to be able to lend them in a way analogous to physical books, in a way that works for libraries, works for readers, but that license is essential to being able to ensuring that publishers are able to get a return on their investment and are able to pay royalties to their authors and continue to support and create new books in the future,” said Hart.
The open letter may partly bolster the Internet Archive’s case by offering an alternative perspective to that of The Author’s Guild, an industry group that filed a brief in support of the publishers’ case and argues that the open library harms authors.
But the Internet Archive still faces an uphill battle. Intellectual property law experts who spoke to The Hill said the best-case scenario for the Internet Archive to succeed depends on whether or not their actions qualify as a fair use exception under copyright law. copyright.
The outcome of the case could go beyond whether or not the open library can continue, and could shape how libraries operate in the future if more institutions are able to adopt this form of controlled digital loan. of the Internet Archive, whether some or all Internet Archive activity is considered fair use, that would be a huge shift in the current balance between copyright owners on the one hand, and users and distributors on the other,” said Robert Brauneis, professor of intellectual property law at George Washington University School of Law.
–Updated at 8:26 a.m.