Publishing Giants Are Fighting Libraries on E-Books

The Association of American Publishers filed suit to block a new Maryland law that aims to increase public libraries' access to e-books, with support from a powerful copyright lobbying group.

Publishing Giants Are Fighting Libraries on E-Books
A visitor reads an e-book at Tempelhof park amidst the coronavirus crisis on March 28, 2020 in Berlin, Germany.

Last year, Maryland lawmakers unanimously passed a bill that aimed to help public libraries offer e-books and audiobooks to patrons. Publishers were charging libraries three to five times as much as consumers pay for an e-book, and for only a two-year license, state legislators showed. The law, signed in May, would require publishers to license electronic literary products to Maryland public libraries “on reasonable terms.”

A similar measure in New York was also passed, virtually unanimously, over the summer, with 210 state legislators in favor and one voting nay—only to be vetoed in the last days of the year by Democratic Gov. Kathy Hochul.

Gov. Hochul’s veto came after the industry group Association of American Publishers (AAP) initiated a lawsuit in December against the Maryland law, arguing that it violated federal copyright law. Hochul echoed the AAP’s position in her statement explaining why she vetoed the bill, which had strong grassroots support from library advocates.

Lawmakers in six other states have introduced bills that seek to support schools and libraries in accessing e-books, as institutions are being hit with high prices and restrictive licensing terms for digital works—and with publishers refusing to make some e-book titles available to libraries. According to a recent survey by the library group ReadersFirst, e-book prices for libraries have tripled over the past nine years, with publishers charging between $20 and $65 for an e-book copy that libraries cannot own permanently. For popular e-books, libraries pay $55 for a copy that expires after two years, or $550 for a copy for 20 years, compared with the about $15 that a consumer would pay, according to the American Library Association (ALA).

The Maryland law passed 130 to 0 in the General Assembly and 47-0 in the Maryland Senate, and took effect on the first day of this year. Last month, however, a federal judge issued a preliminary injunction, siding with AAP’s argument in their lawsuit that the law interferes with federal copyright law. The Maryland attorney general will defend the state’s law, a stance applauded by the ALA. 

Soaring E-Book Use

Libraries and schools worldwide have been increasingly lending out e-books and audiobooks, even before the coronavirus pandemic took hold. Over 500 million copies of digital books were circulated last year, according to digital reading platform OverDrive, an increase from 430 million the year before and 326 million in 2019. Back in 2016, the total had reached 200 million, which was up from just 15 million in 2010.

Library patrons and students went digital to crack the covers of everything from Barack Obama’s memoir to young adult fiction to the latest issues of The Economist magazine—or its rival US Weekly, based on OverDrive’s lists of the most popular e-books. The Toronto Public Library alone circulated nearly 10 million titles last year, a new record, and the Los Angeles Public Library surpassed 8 million lends.

Librarians have been warning that large publishers are squeezing licensing terms on digital works, pushing for libraries to merely rent digital works, rather than allowing them to own copies as they do physical books.

“Libraries simply can no longer be forced to rent their e-book collections with restrictions and pricing that are designed to minimize the libraries’ ability to provide access to the public, while maximizing publisher profits over that library mission,” said Jennie Rose Halperin, executive director of Library Futures, a nonprofit group that launched in January 2021 to champion the right to equitable access to knowledge.

In 2019, when the House Judiciary Subcommittee of Antitrust, Commercial and Administrative Law held an investigation into digital marketplaces, the nonprofit ALA slammed the publishing industry’s practices—including those of Amazon, which sells 90% of e-books, according to industry figures.