Back in December last year, a guest post on Walled Culture by Yohanna Anderson related how publishers initially offered universities free access to ebook collections when it became clear that the Covid pandemic would mean libraries would not be able to open for the foreseeable future. It seemed a generous move on the publishers’ part. But then:
access to these books was quietly withdrawn as early as June 2020, when the pandemic was still raging. In their place, universities were offered exorbitantly priced subscription-based bundled packages of the ebooks or individual ebook licenses priced at as much as 500% more than the hardcopy. The cynical among us could be forgiven for concluding that the initial generous offer was nothing more than a ploy to manipulate the market by forcing libraries, desperately trying to support students studying remotely, into signing up to expensive and unsustainable subscription ebook models.
A new report from the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions (IFLA) provides a useful update and amplification of Anderson’s experiences. It seems that many publishers used Covid as an excuse to exploit hard-hit libraries all around the world: 83% of library professionals who responded to the survey, 114 from 29 countries, said they had copyright-related challenges providing materials during pandemic-related facility closures. In particular:
Many publishers offered expanded access to services and content during the early months of the pandemic. These offers usually did not last for sufficient time for libraries to meaningfully integrate them into teaching and research activities, amid other pandemic-associated difficulties and the schedule of the academic calendar. 35% of respondents said that the offers publishers made covered the entirety of closure of their facilities, 48% said they did not, and 17% could not confirm the details.
The IFLA report goes on to detail the ways in which some publishers were unhelpful or placed the sanctity of copyright above the pressing need to help millions of students struggling to access textbooks and other study materials. The whole sorry saga is further evidence that far from promoting access to knowledge, copyright is often an obstacle to it. Moreover, the publishers’ behaviour indicates that even during a global crisis like a pandemic, for many their chief concern was bolstering profits and preserving copyright’s intellectual monopoly, rather than aiding people in dire need.
Featured image by Scientific Animation.