·  by Anna Hickey

Empowering Libraries to Lend Out Ebooks

Originally Posted On: Public Knowledge

The COVID-19 pandemic upended life in March 2020. Almost everything was forced online to stop the spread of the novel coronavirus, and libraries were not exempted. When the pandemic hit, many libraries were forced to get creative on how to safely interact with their patrons. Libraries had started to invest in enabling online access to books and other materials before 2020, but the pandemic saw user rates of ebooks soar.

Recently, Sen. Wyden (D-OR) and Rep. Eshoo (D-CA) recently sent a letter to the five major publishing companies asking them for information about their ebook licensing practices with regard to libraries. Although the publishers have yet to respond, we are glad to see members of Congress investigating the issue. Ebooks, unlike paper books, are not owned by the libraries; in fact, publishing companies force libraries, and schools, to pay exorbitant fees to allow them to provide ebooks to their patrons.

Instead of being able to purchase an ebook to rent out to patrons, libraries must rent ebooks from the publishing companies. Libraries are forced to rent electronic materials, if they want them as part of their collections for patrons to borrow, and these materials often come with restrictions. The industry’s Big Five publishers have limited the number of times a library can loan out an ebook (most often 26 or 52 loans) and put a “self-destruct timer” on the files that prevents the library from loaning them out again after a certain amount of time. This restriction forces libraries to repurchase items repeatedly — and means libraries must choose whether to renew at the end of a licensing term or take away access to the expired electronic books after the licensing term. And not only do libraries have to keep re-renting the books in their collection, they also have to do it at a cost well above market price. While most consumers don’t pay more than $15 for an ebook, libraries are forced to spend up to $40 for a book that self-destructs.

For libraries, it was not always this way. In 2011, many publishers offered a perpetual license at around $15 for some of their catalog. As the number of licensed ebooks increased, the self-destruct thresholds became shorter and shorter, and the price of each book increased. Because libraries have limited budgets, the high cost of ebooks restricts what librarians can offer to their community.

Libraries are not just facing high costs for limiting licensing deals. Until May of this year, Amazon Publishing would not provide their ebooks to libraries for any price. While this decision was reversed earlier this year, Amazon Publishing’s play shows the power that publishers have over libraries. Fight for the Future, an organization fighting for free expression and empowerment through the internet, has created WhoCanGetYourBook.org. The website rates books via letter grade for accessibility and availability. The tool will help libraries and consumers see what books and publishers are lacking accessibility.

The existing model for ebook supply is hurting libraries and their communities. Any solutions to this problem require transparency from publishers and willingness of Congress to act. Under the current “Netflix for books” model, libraries, patrons and communities are the ones that lose. Put simply, libraries need to own the books that they lend to their patrons. Another possible fix is controlled digital lending (CDL), where libraries loan digital or scanned copies of books they physically own. While PK believes this is already legal under Section 107 of the Copyright Act, fear of litigation means that many libraries and other institutions are hesitant to start this practice. Clear statutory language that clarified that CDL is lawful, that also enhanced library rights in other ways, would benefit library users. While not a perfect solution, this would let libraries loan out electronic copies of their books without having to buy pricey digital licenses.

When libraries have to divert resources that could go to expanding community programs to trying to afford the increasingly expensive ebooks, communities suffer. Libraries provide resources and education to immigrants, job training, after-school activities for children, places for people to create community ties, and more. Public libraries allocate funds to connect visitors to housing assistance, healthcare, and employment opportunities. They are a public resource, funded by public dollars to provide a public good: equitable access to knowledge and information. With budgets being cut, libraries need to make the most out of their limited resources. They should not have to choose between devoting a significant portion of their budget to ebook licensing deals or cutting vital community resources. Tell Congress to empower libraries and give them more power in providing accessible material for their patrons.