Giant Publisher Macmillan Goes To War Against Libraries

from the wtf-is-wrong-with-macmillan? dept

We’ve joked in the past that, given the insane state of copyright maximalism, if libraries were invented today, it’s quite clear that book publishers would insist they were dens of piracy and had to be stopped at all costs. It is, at best, the luck of history that libraries got “grandfathered” in before copyright system maximalists went completely out of their minds. But, in fact, copyright holders still do appear to hate libraries and wish they’d go away. Case in point: publishing giant Macmillan, which has decided that libraries shouldn’t be lending ebooks any more. Back in July it announced a new plan, starting November 1st, to “embargo” ebooks offered to libraries.

If you’re not already aware, most libraries offer ebook lending — which gives borrowers temporary access to an ebook, just like borrowing a hard copy library book. I use this all the time to borrow ebooks from my local library (which has also resulted in my buying permanent copies of many of those books). However, Macmillan has decided to crack down on the practice. In a letter to authors defending this move, Macmillan claimed that library ebook lending was cutting into its bottom line:

One thing is abundantly clear. The growth in ebook lends through libraries has been remarkable. For Macmillan, 45% of the ebook reads in the US are now being borrowed for free from libraries. And that number is still growing rapidly. The average revenue we get from those library reads (after the wholesaler share) is well under two dollars and dropping, a small fraction of the revenue we share with you on a retail read.

And so, Macmillan has decided to fuck over libraries and library patrons:

The terms: We will make one copy of your ebook available to each library system in perpetuity upon publication. On that single copy we will cut the price in half to $30 (currently first copies are $60 and need renewal after two years or 52 lends). This change reflects the library request for lower prices and perpetual access. Additional copies of that title will not be available for library purchase until 8 weeks after publication. All other terms remain in place. It is important to note that the 8-week window only applies to ebooks; the library can order as many physical books as they like on publication. It is a window for only a single format.

The key thing here is only allowing a single ebook to be purchased by a library for that 8-week period, meaning that it will be nearly impossible for most patrons to borrow those books (assuming a standard library lend is 2 weeks, renewable for another 2 weeks, this means only 2 to 4 patrons are likely to be able to borrow those books when first released).

In September, librarians around the US launched a campaign — urging Macmillan to rethink this awful plan:

This embargo limits libraries? ability to provide access to information for all. It particularly harms library patrons with disabilities or learning issues. One of the great things about eBooks is that they can become large-print books with only a few clicks, and most eBook readers offer fonts and line spacing that make reading easier for people who have dyslexia or other visual challenges. Because portable devices are light and easy to hold, eBooks are easier to use for some people who have physical disabilities.

Macmillan is the only major publisher restricting public libraries? ability to purchase and lend digital content to their communities. Before the embargo took effect, we collected 160,000 signatures from readers who urged Macmillan not to go through with their plan. And we delivered these signatures in person to CEO John Sargent. Sadly, he did not listen.

Indeed, he absolutely did not listen. Instead, he went forward with the plan and is defending the embargo by comparing it to “movie windows” — the almost universally hated practice of Hollywood to release movies first in theaters before bringing them to home video and other platforms:

?He likened the e-book marketplace to that for major motion pictures in that new releases have the greatest value in their first few weeks and their initial release should allow for the greatest return on both creative and business investment. The availability of e-books through libraries, which may be perceived as being free, is, in Macmillan?s opinion, the major driver in the consumer decline.?

Sargent also repeated another ?oft-stated claim,? the release states?that e-book availability through libraries ?devalues? the book.

This is nonsense on multiple levels. First, Hollywood has been learning just how damaging windows are over the past few decades, because they more frequently create incentives for piracy and generally piss people off. It’s why the windows have continued to shrink (drastically), and more and more films are moving to so-called “day and date” releases with no windows at all. In other words, he’s moving in the opposite direction of the very industry he claims he’s modeling his new plan on.

Second, the “devalues” claim is just bullshit. It’s one that all copyright maximalists like to throw out there when complaining about “free” or cheap competition and it’s hogwash. It’s about market segmentation, and limiting access to books via libraries is a giant fuck you to the reading public. Besides, as the libraries point out, given that ebooks are only loaned out 3 to 4 times over those 8 weeks, and libraries would need to pay $60 per later copy, Sargent’s math makes no sense at all.

?Typical e-book loan periods are 2?3 weeks,? noted COSLA president and Hawaii State Librarian Stacey Aldrich. ?It is unlikely that a single e-book purchased by a library at 3 or 4 times the cost of a consumer book would circulate more than 2.5 times in the first eight weeks, so the drain on potential buyers is insignificant during the e-books? most valuable selling period.?

?Libraries pay higher prices for e-books,” added Cindy Aden, chair of COSLA?s e-book engagement group and Washington State Librarian. ?We question the logic that a publisher would achieve significant revenue from restricting sales to libraries. In our experience, few readers faced with wait times for a new release would choose to purchase the book directly instead of waiting, even if those wait times are significant.?

Further, ?contrary to the assumption stated by Mr. Sargent that availability through libraries negatively impacts book sales,? the release goes on, ?COSLA believes that library availability builds readership, increases awareness of authors, publishers, booksellers and the entire ecosystem, thereby positively impacting sales.?

Librarians are (quite understandably) furious about all of this. Librarian Wendy Crutcher has an excellent post directed at Macmillan called “Libraries are Not the Enemy” that is well worth reading in its entirety. Here’s a snippet:

Libraries aren?t the competition nor are we unreasonable. We get that publishers need to turn a profit and we want authors to make a living. Libraries aren?t the problem; the problem is competition from other distractions and the now-set reader expectations that eBooks shouldn?t cost more than $2.99. Libraries didn?t do that. We?re literally creating demand for the product. One of our cornerstone principles is to create lifelong, enthusiastic readers and learners. Plus there?s actual data that library users are also book buyers.

The worst part about all of this is that this policy is no good for anyone, well, other than Amazon who will benefit mightily by driving a larger wedge between publishers and libraries. Any policy that limits access to new books hurts readers, it hurts authors, and it hurts the publisher.

Oh, sure, some readers will get frustrated and simply buy the book, assuming they have the means to do that. However, the more likely outcome is that readers will get frustrated, simply move on, and forget about the book entirely to the point of never reading it. Which is not what we want at all.

The reality seems to be that, as the joke goes, copyright maximalists just see libraries as dens of piracy that need to be stopped. We’ve seen this before. Publishers have massively jacked up the prices of lendable ebooks (note the $60 price above), they’ve built in “expiring” licenses so that those expensive purchases can only be loaned out a limited number of times. And now they’re limiting how many licenses can be purchased by a single library.

This is an attack on libraries for no good reason, other than publishers hating the concept of “free” access to books.

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Companies: macmillan

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Comments on “Giant Publisher Macmillan Goes To War Against Libraries”

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This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
Anonymous Anonymous Coward (profile) says:

There's more than one likely outcome of this behavior

"…the more likely outcome is that readers will get frustrated, simply move on, and forget about the book entirely to the point of never reading it…"

I think it will be more of a split between people forgetting about the book or finding it on a torrent. In that case Macmillan and other publishers who might follow this practice will be even more out of luck, and unfortunately the authors as well.

I don’t know enough about Amazon’s self publishing policy, but it would seem like a better way to go for authors (if one can stomach Amazon). That still leaves some parts of the ‘authoring chain’ out, such as editing, marketing, cover creation, and maybe a part or two I am not thinking of right now.

This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
Anonymous Coward says:

Re: There's more than one likely outcome of this behavior

The real difficulty for the publishers is that once readers get used to torrenting or other forms of piracy, it’s difficult to get readers back.

I have a friend who swears by two things: 1. Baen treats its readers well. He buys everything they put out in their monthly bundles even though we both know he’ll never get to reading them all. 2. Even though Tor finally gave up on DRM, they overprice their ebooks, and in any event by that time he was already into the "pirate channels," and he’s never bothered to look back or give them another chance.

Making enemies of your customers is bad business. Period.

This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: There's more than one likely outcome of this behavior

Indeed. I can see one of the results of this move being that some people who are really in to Macmillan books ensure they’re the first to check them out of their local library… after which they strip the DRM, stick them in a torrent, and promptly return the book.

So now instead of having a bunch of payments to the library of $60 per book, you have a single payment, multiple people reading the book, and a DRM-free version for the entire world to read.

How does this help Macmillan, the Libraries, or the promotion of the useful arts, exactly?

This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
BernardoVerda (profile) says:

Re: Re: There's more than one likely outcome of this behavior

Similar for me.
I’m a fan of Baen, and Smashwords.
Sometimes I’ll buy from Tor.

Aside from that, it’s physical books if I’m sure I’ll like it, and the rest it’s torrent, "friend-net", etc, and if I really like it I’ll buy the physical version (to support the author).

I’ve had DRM issues with books I know were released by the author DRM-free.

Publishers are effectively at war with readers — their customers — especially the ones that read a lot. It’s not a winning strategy.

This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
Anonymous Anonymous Coward (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: There's more than one likely outcome of this behavio

Publishers are at war with the declining necessity of their business, or business model. The reference is to buggy whip manufacturers. They are trying to fight the allegorical existence of cars. There is no way to refute the fact of cars. As there is no way to refute the existence and eventual primacy of eBooks.. They are fighting for their existence in their current business model, rather than reinventing themselves as being the premier supplier of editing, marketing, cover art, etc.. They may have to change the way they pay employees and authors, but the alternative is to waste a lot of money while they drive themselves into bankruptcy. I have no doubt that is the way they will go. If not, color me surprised.

While on the other hand, torrents provide nearly instant satisfaction and are nearly impossible to stop, regardless of how hard one tries. Torrents are in fact a form of marketing, See Paulo Coelho and follow the links to Paulo Coelho articles on Techdirt . If Macmillan could find a business model that included torrents along with some forms of monetary conduction then they would be set, for at least a couple of decades or so.

To think that what you do now will continue to work in the future is the mindset of failure. Thinking about what is, and what is to come, as rapidly as it come is the way to keep businesses fresh and alive. One of the difficulties of today is that change is coming evermore so rapidly and will continue to increase in it’s rapidity. Get ready to run business, it’s no longer jogging, and the next step is faster than one can run. How you gonna do that?

This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
hegemon13 says:

Re: Re: Re:2 There's more than one likely outcome of this beh

The thing is, publishers can still provide great value and fill an important role. They’re just too jaded by the loss of their role as gatekeepers to realize that was never where their value was.

The fact is, most writers are not good marketers, salesmen, or businessmen. The current move to a do-it-yourself model unfortunately means many really great works will never be seen and discovered. This model favors those authors who are good at business and promotion, rather than favoring great writers.

Publishers know the promotion and marketing business. They understand branding and have established brands that can act as a stamp of quality to loyal readers. With the dawn of ebooks and self-publishing, they should have doubled down on this side of their business, providing the business-side services to the many, many authors who are clueless on that front. Instead, they’ve backed away from it, demanding authors provide their own promotion. Instead of building bridges between authors and readers, they’re building walls and doing everything they can to take back their long-gone gatekeeper status.

It’d be funny if it weren’t so sad for both readers and authors. I just hope that in the long term, forward-thinking publishers like Baen win out, and the dinosaurs go extinct.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: There's more than one likely outcome of this behavior

Books are competing with a lot of other media right now. So are newspapers, and magazines, and all manner of print or equivalent-to-print styles of publication. Locally, our city library seems to be cutting back on the size of its entire print collections, sometimes 20% or more, in order to reallocate space and resources to other activities – such as offering adult education lessons in everything from how to take better photographs to how to sew and mend clothing. Anything to remain relevant in an era where every form of conventional media is losing audience share to Internet, with print hit especially hard. I have mixed feelings about the trend, but it is what it is and this sort of tomfoolery really isn’t helping.

This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
Stephen T. Stone (profile) says:


What’s fucked up is that if the concept of libraries didn’t already exist and were proposed today, they likely wouldn’t ever get out of the conceptual stage because of fears about socialism or communism or “what about the poor book publishers who will only be able to buy four yachts this year instead of five”.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Bradbury?

Ray Bradbury is from Los Angeles. In 1986, some nutcase torched the LA Public Library central branch. The damage took years to repair, and Fiction – BR was part of the worst of the damaged sections. Nothing was left of the Bradbury tome but ashes. has a bit of the history.

This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
Anonymous Coward says:

This is going to discriminate against communities based on their population/size. For instance, Ontario operates a province-wide consortium ( for libraries in every little pop-100000 (or smaller) town which doesn’t already have their own Overdrive collection. My home town (pop 123,798) has its own e-book collection… so what happens when McMillan rations out one copy of each new release? My local library gets one copy. The provincial consortium gets one copy. Someone in an outer suburb of my home town, just outside the county line, ends up on a lengthy waiting list behind everyone else in the province while I get to read the new book almost right away. That’s rather arbitrary, but that’s just one of the discontinuities… with another appearing at the large-city end of the spectrum. Yup, my home town gets a copy. New York City (or whichever NYC boroughs are in NYPL) gets one copy. Toronto gets a copy. Yup, one copy. Toronto’s system has 98 branches or so? That won’t be adequate at all.

Anonymous Coward says:

And so, Macmillan has decided to fuck over libraries and library patrons:

But the libraries helped with that when they decided that the concept of "borrowing" digital data made sense and DRM would be no big deal. After they gave in like this, it seems inevitable that the publishers would eventually try to alter the deal. Libraries need to fight back for real, not just by slightly altering the DRM terms, and get some real legal rights.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Legislate to create mandatory controlled digital lending licence

According to – "Controlled Digital Lending (CDL) is an emerging method that allows libraries to loan print books to digital patrons in a ‘lend like print’ fashion."

The concept looks to be: library buys one or more copies of the printed book, with the standard "doctrine of first sale" rights intact – so that they can lend, donate, sell or do whatever they want with that one copy as long as they don’t circulate more copies than they paid for at any one moment. Library then scans that print copy to an e-book, applies their own DRM to the copy and locks the original away so that no one can use it. The copy circulates in its place. As only one patron can be reading for each copy the library actually paid for, the status quo is preserved.

This also preserves the library’s role as preservationist and repository for works – so that they remain available after their original publisher takes them out of print, dumps them into the remainder bin or removes them from commercial sale. That role is important and a key part of the service librarians provide to humanity. It needs to be preserved, not circumvented by using (or abusing) public libraries as a mere conduit to siphon public county, school or municipal funds into Overdrive-like hot-for-profit companies who ultimately are not in the business of allowing communities to own or preserve books, instead only reducing them to renting or (ick) "licencing" the brief and ethereal use of the tomes. The legislatures need to intervene to change the laws to protect the rights of libraries and librarians to preserve treasured works for future generations. They need to serve the public interest, not the publishers’ self-serving interests, as the public has paid good money to have knowledge preserved for the future.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Legislate to create mandatory controlled digital lending lic

I actually like this idea. It would also allow for libraries to acquire additional physical copies (through purchases, donations, etc) that could then be tied to the digital version, so that only the amount of copies of the book the library has on hand could be loaned out at any one time, regardless of the format.

If the library owns 10 physical copies of the book, and 4 are loaned out electronically, then only 6 physical books would be available to lend out (this could be controlled at checkout, even if the physical copies are stored on the shelves that users have access to).

Great idea and it preserves the libraries purpose, which is why it will never be allowed…

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Legislate to create mandatory controlled digital len

The purpose of libraries is to provide access to information. Torrenting should’ve been the best thing to ever happen to them. There’s no good reason to hobble digital books with the restrictions of printed or chiseled media, just because it used to be difficult to make copies.

Anonymous Coward says:

Priced to Gouge

That library price is ridiculous. It reminds me of early video tapes where they typically cost $100-120 for the tape so that only video rental establishments could afford to build a large library. After a period of capturing revenue from the rental stores, they would release a "priced to own" version for mass release at $20.

I typically don’t buy e-books myself, since I see them as having less value than a printed book but having a higher price. I just don’t see the value proposition. But were I to get an e-book, at least I wouldn’t be gouged like libraries.

I’m inspired by this article to donate to my local library.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Priced to Gouge

The studios releasing those $100 prerecorded video tapes never anticipated that someone would create or invent a business model which involved building a circulating library of that media for rental. That only happened because the pesky "doctrine of first sale" didn’t give them the legal tools to make the early video rental stores go away. If the studio could get away with making some early adopter pay $100 for a movie to watch it once, they absolutely would have done so. There’s a long history which goes back to six or seven large California cinema studios owning the actual theatre chains which showed those films – over which they exercised a very heavy, ham-handed control which eventually forced the feds to intervene to break up the scheme. The "you don’t own what you pay for, you merely licence it" mentality far predates the scourge which is the modern software company. It happens in every other media, with governments all too often enabling the abuses.

BernardoVerda (profile) says:

Re: Priced to Gouge

For some reason, public libraries are reluctant to accept donated books — except for those libraries that will sell donated books, rather than try to get them onto their own shelves.

Even if they have available space, and the books would be worth the labour of processing/"acquisitioning" them, there’s the legal hassles with the publishers….

This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
Anonymous Coward says:

KCLS boycotts Macmillan Publishers’ eBook embargo

KCLS is the King County, Washington Library System. It has 50 libraries and serves more than one million residents.

KCLS boycotts Macmillan Publishers’ eBook embargo

Effective November 1, 2019, the King County Library System (KCLS) will no longer purchase newly released eBooks from Macmillan Publishers . . .

King County in Washington state, includes a large portion the Seattle metro area. KCLS is, however, a separate system from the Seattle Public Library (SPL). Nevertheless, KCLS is one of the busiest public library systems in the U.S., and in 2018

For the fifth year in a row, KCLS was named the top digital circulating public library system in the country, with 4.8 million checkouts of eBook and audiobook downloads– a 23 percent increase over 2017.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: KCLS boycotts Macmillan Publishers’ eBook embargo

Given that the goal of the embargo was to restrict eLending and thus encourage readers to buy their own physical or electronic copy a full-on boycott seems pretty impotent. It actually aids the embargo by making the books even less available.

A good effort but utterly pointless.

This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: KCLS boycotts Macmillan Publishers’ eBook embargo

The point of the boycott…

To continue to ensure reasonable wait times for newly released electronic titles, KCLS will divert its eBook funds to publishers who are willing to sell to libraries without a purchasing embargo.

It’s about using dollars in ways that most benefit library patrons.

That One Guy (profile) says:

Re: Re: KCLS boycotts Macmillan Publishers’ eBook embargo

Except it’s really not, as Macmillian went from guaranteed buys at stupidly inflated prices to ‘people might buy the ebooks they would have otherwise borrowed, at drastically lower prices’. If the libraries are smart and they’re telling the people going to them why they’re refusing to buy from a particular publisher that’s likely to cut into even those remaining numbers, as I imagine the sort of people who frequent a library would not be too thrilled to be told a publisher’s greed has them attempting to hamstring the library’s ability to lend ebooks.

This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
Rekrul says:

Whenever I read about ebook lending I’m struck by the ridiculousness of it. People pretending that digital files have finite copies and taking steps to intentionally handicap the functioning of digital devices.

It’s like making people wear air-tight helmets so that you can sell them air and pretend that there’s not a virtually unlimited supply of it. Or asking people to return the memory of a painting that they looked at.

This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

The real problem is that authors could give away their books and make money from various forms of patronage, while publishers are dependent on selling books written by authors. Therefore publishers will fight to control the book market as that control is what they need to do to stay in business.

nasch (profile) says:

Re: Re:

People pretending that digital files have finite copies and taking steps to intentionally handicap the functioning of digital devices.

Copyright law applies to digital goods. Libraries can’t legally infinitely copy and distribute ebooks any more than they could paper books, just because it would be free to do so. Since publishers aren’t giving away the books, libraries have to put in place measures to ensure they’re not lending out more copies than they own, or else not lend out ebooks. Which would you prefer?

Rekrul says:

Re: Re: Re:

Copyright law applies to digital goods. Libraries can’t legally infinitely copy and distribute ebooks any more than they could paper books, just because it would be free to do so. Since publishers aren’t giving away the books, libraries have to put in place measures to ensure they’re not lending out more copies than they own, or else not lend out ebooks. Which would you prefer?

I know that it’s legally required, I just find it silly.

What would you think if shoe companies had an EULA that required you to bring your shoes into the store once a week so that they could shave a layer of material off the bottom wearing them out faster, and this was enforced by law? How about if bottled water had a special hole in the bottom, so that once you took off the cap, the bottom hole opened up and it was against the law to put your finger over this hole, pour the water into another container or otherwise prevent it from draining out while you try to drink it? What if it was illegal to open/eat food after the "Best by" date on the package and you were legally required to throw such food in the trash, even if it was only one day past the date and all the dates on packages only allowed you a single day to use it?

These all seem silly, don’t they? Well, it’s just as silly in my opinion to pretend that computers can only make finite copies of digital files.

Anonymous Coward says:

I have a book that details how to make 100 percent annually in the stock market. Better yet, let’s say it’s Edward O. Thorp’s Beat The Dealer, which was proven to help its readers win millions by card-counting at casinos, to the point where casinos had to change the rules (when they weren’t dishing out "street justice" to those who dared to win at Blackjack).

It’s worthless, right, even if the method does what it claims. People will either ignore the book (that would make them rich), or simply steal it (risking prison and creating absolutely no incentive to publish).

The real problem with writing books is that they take forever to compile if decent, and wind up pirated and plagiarized over time (even without digital piracy), whereas perishable publishing (articles on current events) realize their entire value before these concerns arise, and require far less effort and no revealing of secrets.

In the above example, someone would post to message boards about their wins with card counting, and the audience’s appetite would be whetted to the point where someone will just become a PATRON and pay a huge amount of money to gain the secret. There are people who do this with investing, on websites where their trades are out in the open. If someone makes 100 straight winning trades (or 98 percent, whatever), they’ve proven themselves. Under the "hope" model, they now deserve riches, but why would they publish when they would just be pirated? Instead, they find a patron who backs them, they and the patron get rich, and the public is left with inferior information that leads people to conclude that the internet is worthless.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

That you think that writing get rich books is a honest living says a lot about you. If the scheme described in the book worked, why worry about the small profit that the sale of the books would make. If you are relying on such a book to make a vast fortune, then you are selling a scam by claiming the book enables something you have not achieved.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

I have a book that details how to make 100 percent annually in the stock market.

If he has such a book, then the profit from book sales would not be a significant part of his income, yet he keeps on complaining that he cannot afford his mansion because he cannot publish because pirates will destroy his income. He also implies that he has not found a rich patron to invest in his scheme and make them both rich. Also, this is someone who keeps on complaining that he is being libelled on the Internet, and that is hurting him. That all adds up to a failed scam artist.

bhull242 (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

How is that a “No True Scotsman” fallacy? This isn’t exclusion from a group or label, exactly. It’s a claim that this particular living wouldn’t be “honest” in that person’s opinion; “honest living” is inherently subjective and based on one’s personal morals. It is unlike cases where that fallacy traditionally applies, which involves factual, objective labels or labels that one could apply to oneself and may not involve morality per se. This case is essentially just saying that a given claim strongly suggests dishonesty on the part of the person making the claim. That’s not a “No True Scotsman” fallacy.

nasch (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Re:

How is that a “No True Scotsman” fallacy?

Because he started out with a claim that people with financial advice wouldn’t bother publishing a book about it because they could just sell it to a patron instead. When I pointed out people publishing books of financial advice, he said that those books don’t count (not a True Financial Advice Book), because if their advice worked they would be selling it to patrons instead of putting it in books. Perhaps it’s a circular reasoning fallacy instead? No good advice would be put in a book, therefore any advice in a book must not be good, because if it were good it wouldn’t be in a book.

It’s a claim that this particular living wouldn’t be “honest” in that person’s opinion;

That part isn’t the fallacy. I just ignored that part of his comment – an attempted smear of my character based on something I didn’t even say – as not worth responding to.

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