Authors Alliance Supports Controlled Digital Lending By Libraries

Posted September 28, 2018
woman sitting in a chair holding an e-reader

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Today, Authors Alliance joins a group of organizations, including the Digital Public Library of America, Internet Archive, and UC Berkeley Library, to endorse the Position Statement on Controlled Digital Lending by Libraries. The statement offers a good-faith interpretation of copyright law for libraries considering digitizing works in their collections and circulating the digitized title in place of a physical one. Today’s release of the statement is accompanied by an in-depth white paper by David Hansen and Kyle K. Courtney analyzing the legal arguments for CDL.

For centuries, libraries have provided free access to books to their patrons. Ownership of books gives libraries the right to lend their copies and make them available on bookshelves without seeking copyright owner permissions. In the digital age, libraries have an interest in continuing this time-honored tradition by scanning physical copies of books in their collections and making digital copies available for lending on the same types of terms as they have done with conventional books.

Controlled Digital Lending (“CDL”) is an example of how new technologies can be harnessed to help authors share their creations with readers, promote the ongoing progress of knowledge, and advance the public good. Many authors face technical, legal, and financial barriers that prevent them from sharing their works more widely. When easily accessible online version of their books are not available, their books are effectively locked away, creating a chasm in the public availability of important works.

Under the CDL’s digitize-and-lend model, libraries make digital copies of scanned books from their collections available to patrons (the hard copy is not available for lending while the digital copy is checked out, and vice versa). A library can only circulate the same number of copies that it owned before digitization. Like physical books, the scanned copies are loaned to one person at a time and are subject to limited check-out periods. System design choices and collection decisions, like selecting books that are orphaned (works for which the copyright owner cannot be identified or located), books that are out of print, or books that are non-fiction or primarily factual enhance the fair use arguments that underpin CDL. As Hansen and Courtney explain, CDL is “not meant to be a competitor to Overdrive, nor a replacement for licensing e-books of best-sellers or other currently licensable e-book content,” but CDL is particularly helpful to “address access to the large number of books published in the ’20th Century black hole’ that have little hope of otherwise bring made available to readers online.”

For these reasons, CDL is particularly beneficial for authors whose works are out of print or otherwise commercially unavailable: In the absence of digitizing and lending these books, many would simply be inaccessible to readers. In fact, some Authors Alliance members have taken the extra step to regain the copyrights to their books from their publishers and make them openly available online, including through HathiTrust, Google Books, and Internet Archive’s Open Library, without one-person-at-a-time lending restrictions. Others have negotiated with their publishers to make open copies of their works available from the moment of publication. These authors are often motivated by their desire to reach readers and promote the dissemination of knowledge and culture beyond the commercial life of their books, or to reach readers whose access to these works is otherwise limited.

Sidonie Smith, Professor of English and Women’s Studies at University of Michigan, regained rights to her 1987 book A Poetics of Women’s Autobiography: Marginality and the Fictions of Self-Representation several years ago. Smith now makes the book available to the public under an open access license, allowing her to reach readers and scholars around the world. According to Smith, this decision means that her book can “live more vibrantly in the public and academic spheres. Through that access I can share ideas more directly with emerging scholars in my fields of autobiography studies and feminist studies of women’s literature; support students and faculty around the globe in their engagement with life writing capaciously defined; and contribute in a small way to the project of educational justice that makes scholarly resources available across differently situated institutions of higher education.”

Robert Darnton, Professor at Harvard University, also opened up access to the first two books he published and made them freely available online after he successfully reverted rights. At the time, he described how distributing works in this way allows authors to “ensure[] that your work’s continuing impact and relevance are not limited by its commercial life.”

While reverting rights, terminating transfers, or negotiating for open terms may be an option for some authors to fully open up access to their works online, the fact remains that millions of books—especially those that have fallen out of print—are, for all intents and purposes, unavailable. The CDL model is a boon to the authors of these and other books, allowing them to find new audiences online.

For all of these reasons, and those outlined in the Position Statement on Controlled Digital Lending by Libraries, Authors Alliance endorses CDL as a beneficial tool for readers and authors alike.