It is no secret that Authors Alliance loves libraries, and we support policies that help libraries fulfill their essential role of making knowledge and culture available and accessible to all. In recent months, several states have proposed and in some cases passed legislation that requires publishers to license e-books to libraries under “reasonable terms.” Similarly, bookselling and publishing giant Amazon has taken steps to make its content available to libraries, following years of refusal to license e-books to libraries altogether. In today’s post, we will share some of the details of these exciting developments.
Over the course of the past year, three state legislatures have introduced legislation that would impose limits on a publisher’s ability to sell e-books to libraries at a high cost. Under the current licensing model, libraries can pay as much as $60 per title for an e-book license, which often have very restrictive terms, whereas consumers can purchase an e-book license for the same title at a fraction of the cost. The first of these bills was passed in Maryland, and the New York state legislature has also recently approved the New York bill. A bill in Rhode Island is currently pending. Additionally, groups in Connecticut, Texas, Virginia, and Washington have reportedly begun advocating for similar legislation.
Maryland’s Library E-Book Lending Law
Maryland was the first state to enact legislation requiring publishers to offer libraries e-book and digital audiobook licenses on reasonable terms. The Maryland state legislature unanimously passed the bill in March, but before it was approved by the governor, it faced last-minute opposition from the Association of American Publishers (“AAP”), who claimed the bill was unconstitutional. Despite these challenges, Governor Larry Hogan announced that the bill was enacted into law in late May. The law will go into effect in January 2022, and requires publishers who license “electronic literary products” (which may be broader in scope than “e-books”) to the general public to “offer to license the product to public libraries in the State on reasonable terms that would enable public libraries to provide library users with access[.]” It remains to be seen what will constitute “reasonable terms” under the new Maryland law, but the Maryland Library Association has recently issued a statement providing guidance on what might constitute reasonable terms and how these might be developed.
Despite the tough opposition it faced from publishers, the Maryland law has been described by its proponents as “fairly mild.” This is because it does not fundamentally change the e-book licensing scheme employed by publishers, whereby e-books are temporarily licensed to libraries, who remain unable to actually own these digital copies. Instead, the law simply requires publishers to offer e-book licenses to libraries on terms they can afford in order to allow libraries to perform their essential function of serving patrons: readers are not served when libraries cannot afford e-book licenses. This problem took on particular salience during the pandemic, when many readers were unable to access physical books at all. The new Maryland law takes aim at this issue without disrupting the traditional e-book licensing model that publishers are reluctant to abandon. Nonetheless, the AAP has since affirmed its opposition to these legislative efforts, maintaining that the Maryland law and other state legislation like it are inconsistent with federal copyright law.
New York’s Library E-Book Lending Bill
Last month, the New York state legislature passed a bill similar to the Maryland bill. Just as in Maryland, state legislators voted unanimously in favor of the bill’s passage. The New York bill also requires publishers to offer libraries e-book licenses on “reasonable terms” if those e-book licenses are also available for purchase by the public. The New York bill proceeds from the premise that “[p]ublic libraries provide equitable access to information for all.” Because many New Yorkers (like many readers writ large) prefer digital books over physical ones, whether due to print or mobility disabilities or for ease of access, the bill takes aim at “discriminatory practices” such as e-book embargos, whereby libraries must wait months to purchase licenses for new e-books.
The New York bill has not yet been sent to Governor Andrew Cuomo for his signature, but advocates are “cautiously optimistic” that he will sign once it has been sent. The bill must be sent to the governor by the end of the calendar year, and once signed, will take effect after just 19 days. This means that while the New York bill is not yet law, it may well take effect before Maryland’s new law if sent to and signed by Governor Cuomo.
Rhode Island’s Library E-Book Lending Bill
In Rhode Island, the analogue bill to the Maryland and New York bills was re-introduced in April of this year after a similar bill last legislative session failed to gain momentum. The 2021 bill, which, like the Maryland legislation, includes digital audiobooks, was then recommended for further study by the House Corporations Committee, with no further updates since late April. Former Rhode Island state senator, Mark McKenney, penned an op-ed voicing his support for the bill, pointing out that “libraries lending books to patrons hasn’t put publishers out of business,” and calling out Amazon specifically for its policy of refusing to sell or license e-books it publishes to libraries and schools altogether.
Amazon and the Digital Public Library of America
In December 2020, Amazon announced it was in talks with the Digital Public Library of America (“DPLA”) to make thousands of books it publishes available to public libraries via the DPLA exchange. The long-awaited deal between the organizations was signed in May, and is set to go into effect sometime this summer. The partnership contemplates several different licensing models, including flexible “bundles” of lends and more traditional models involving time limits and restrictions on how many patrons can check out an e-book at a time. Librarians have applauded Amazon for offering the less restrictive “bundle” models, which provide additional flexibility for libraries. Unlike the state library e-book lending legislation, the Amazon-DPLA partnership will offer an alternative to the traditional licensing scheme.
Library advocates are cautiously optimistic about the Amazon-DPLA partnership, but also note that how much it will help libraries will depend on how Amazon prices its e-books for libraries, which is at this point unknown. Unlike the state library e-book lending legislation discussed above, the Amazon deal makes no mention of how library e-book licenses will be priced. Moreover, not all Amazon-published titles will be made available through the partnership—self-published Kindle originals and Audible audiobooks are not included in the program, for example. Another limitation of the Amazon-DPLA partnership is that it requires libraries to participate in the DPLA marketplace, and will make the e-books readable with the SimplyE reading app, an open source e-reading platform developed by the New York Public Library. Many library patrons today access e-books via more popular marketplaces such as OverDrive, and both iBooks and Kindle are much more popular e-reading platforms with which patrons are likely to be more familiar. Yet the Amazon-DPLA partnership is undoubtedly a step in the right direction towards ensuring greater access to books published by Amazon. Moreover, the deal is not exclusive, meaning that Amazon could develop similar partnerships in the future in order to make its e-books even more accessible to library patrons.