Amazon's Refusal To Let Libraries Lend Ebooks Shows Why Controlled Digital Lending Is So Important

from the libraries-need-books dept

The Washington Post tech columnist Geoffrey Fowler recently had a very interesting article about how Amazon won't allow the ebooks it publishes to be lent out from libraries. As someone who regularly borrows ebooks from my local libraries, I find this disappointing -- especially since, as Fowler notes, Amazon really is the company that made ebooks popular. But, when it comes to libraries, Amazon won't let libraries lend those ebooks out:

When authors sign up with a publisher, it decides how to distribute their work. With other big publishers, selling e-books and audiobooks to libraries is part of the mix — that’s why you’re able to digitally check out bestsellers like Barack Obama’s “A Promised Land.” Amazon is the only big publisher that flat-out blocks library digital collections. Search your local library’s website, and you won’t find recent e-books by Amazon authors Kaling, Dean Koontz or Dr. Ruth Westheimer. Nor will you find downloadable audiobooks for Trevor Noah’s “Born a Crime,” Andy Weir’s “The Martian” and Michael Pollan’s “Caffeine.”

I've seen a lot of people responding to this article with anger towards Amazon, which is understandable. I do hope Amazon changes this policy. But there's a much bigger culprit here: our broken copyright laws. In the physical world, this kind of thing isn't a problem. If a library wants to lend out a book, it doesn't need the publisher's permission. It can just buy a copy and start lending it out. Fowler's correct that a publisher does get to decide how it wants to distribute a work, but with physical books, there's the important first sale doctrine, which lets anyone who buys a book go on and resell it. And that meant that in the past, libraries have never needed "permission" to lend out a book. They just needed to buy it.

Unfortunately, courts seem to take a dim view of the first sale doctrine when it comes to digital goods.

However, a few years back, some very smart librarians and copyright professors and experts got together and created a system called Controlled Digital Lending (CDL), which aimed to (1) rectify this massive gap in public access to knowledge while (2) remaining on the correct side of copyright law. In its most basic form, CDL, involves libraries buying physical copies of books (as they did in the past), scanning those books (which has already been ruled to be fair use for libraries) and then lending out that digital copy only if they had the matching physical copy on the shelf. As the libraries and copyright experts correctly note, it's difficult to argue that this is any different than lending out the copy of the book that they bought.

But, of course, publishers have always hated libraries' ability to lend out books in the first place -- and have been itching to use the power of copyright to block that. Already, they charge libraries insanely high prices for ebooks to lend, and put ridiculous limits on how those books can be lent.

So, no surprise, last year, in the middle of a once-in-a-century pandemic, the publishers sued the Internet Archive, arguing that its Open Library project, which runs based on the CDL principles, violated copyright law. And, incredibly, a ton of people have cheered on this nonsense lawsuit -- even those who hate Amazon.

Yet, if you really want to stop Amazon from being able to block libraries from lending out ebooks, there's a simple answer: fix copyright law. Make it clear that Controlled Digital Lending is legal. Or, go even further and say that the First Sale Doctrine also applies to digital goods, as it absolutely should.

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Filed Under: controlled digital lending, copyright, digital first sale, ebooks, first sale, knowledge, libraries
Companies: amazon, internet archive


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  1. identicon
    Rekrul, 16 Mar 2021 @ 4:11pm

    Re: Re: Piracy is the answer

    Your solution to a system that unfairly favours corporate publishers at the expense of independent authors is to tell people never to give any money to independent authors, and to bolster the ideas that prevent digital lending from being widely discussed as an option?

    I hope you understand the flaws in your plan here.

    What's the solution then? Trying to get copyright law changed to something more fair is like pissing into the wind. If you're not prepared to throw millions of dollars at politicians to get them to vote the way you want them to, your opinion literally doesn't matter to them. You could present the government with a petition signed by 300 million people (almost the entire population of the country) in favor of more equitable copyright laws and it would go straight into the nearest trash can unless it also came with a shipping crate full of cash.

    Steamboat Willie is officially set to become public domain (if it isn't already) on January 1st, 2024. You can bet your ass that before that date comes up, Disney will be in front of Congress begging for another copyright extension. You can also bet your ass that the government will give it to them. If not for Steamboat Willie, they will most definitely, abso-frigging-lutely be there before 2025 which is when the copyright on later versions of Mickey Mouse expire. There is no way in hell that Disney is going to let that happen.


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