Publishers have long hated libraries; here’s the history, and the next attack

As a Walled Culture post last year noted, publishers hate libraries (well, many of the bigger publishers do, at least.) A handy piece of research entitled “The Publisher Playbook: A Brief History of the Publishing Industry’s Obstruction of the Library Mission” (freely available as a preprint) confirms that the hatred is long-standing:

Libraries play an essential role in the democratization of knowledge to the public. To serve this role, libraries have continuously evolved their ability to provide access to collections in innovative ways. Many of these advancements in access, however, were not achieved without overcoming serious resistance and obstruction from the rightsholder and publishing industry. Libraries and their readers have routinely engaged in lengthy battles to defend the ability for libraries to fulfill their mission and serve the public good. However, Congress and the courts have historically upheld libraries’ attempts to expand access for the public. As outlined below, the struggle to maintain the library’s access-based mission and serve the public interest began as early as the late 1800s, and continues through today.

The most recent example in “The Publisher Playbook” of companies doing their utmost to limit what libraries can make available is the terrible lawsuit against the Open Library for daring to increase access to books during the Covid pandemic. Today, 20 March 2023, the Southern District Court of New York will be hearing the oral arguments in this important case.

The penultimate example of the new research is litigation against US state legislation promoting fair and equitable ebook access. Walled Culture wrote about this back in December 2021, when US publishers sued to stop a Maryland law that would require publishers to license ebooks on “reasonable terms”. Hardly unreasonable, you might have thought, but the publishers disagreed, sued – and unfortunately won. But library advocates are a persistent lot, and they have come back with new model legislation aimed at addressing the ebook licensing problem, described here by Publishers Weekly:

The revised language, developed with support from nascent library advocacy group Library Futures, takes a “regulate” rather than “mandate” approach. In other words, unlike Maryland’s law, which would have required publishers to offer license agreements to libraries “on reasonable terms” for digital books that were available to consumers, the new legislative language instead focuses regulating the terms of agreements. Key to the revised bill’s effectiveness is language that would render unenforceable any license term that “precludes, limits, or restricts” libraries from performing their traditional, core mission.

The model language has been introduced in bills in two states, Massachusetts and Hawaii, but more are in the works, apparently. Of course, publishers are already trying to paint this approach as “unconstitutional”, and they will doubtless challenge proposed laws in the courts. And so the battle between libraries and the publishing industry continues.

Featured image created with Stable Diffusion.

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