Fighting for libraries and e-books


Given my time in the Rhode Island Senate, it is not surprising that I am sometimes asked questions on a variety of issues. Recently, I had a question about a bill that is before the House of Representatives, on e-books. I am happy to provide an overview of the bill.

The bill, H6246, was heard last week by the Business Committee, whose chairman is the very able Joseph Solomon, Jr. of Warwick. I thought I would testify on the bill, but the code of ethics could probably be read as a year after leaving office. So I decided to share a testimony. I can weigh in on any issue, however, in a public forum, so I do.

I love libraries. Long before I applied for elective office, I worked as a volunteer in literacy and libraries. I was chairman of the state library board for 10 years, then chairman of the Providence Community Library (which manages all the libraries in the neighborhood) for years as well. Additionally, I personally use eBooks, especially digital audiobooks. So when the Rhode Island Library Association first asked me to help with this problem last year, I was happy to do so. At their request, I tabled a bill in the Senate.

The bill was needed primarily because one of the Big Five publishers, MacMillan, launched an embargo on the supply of new e-books to libraries. Specifically, MacMillan refused to sell e-books to libraries at the same time he released them to the public. The company limited the number of e-books libraries could purchase, the length of time they could loan them to customers, and the number of e-book licenses that libraries could obtain on the same date as they were available to the public. Fortunately, and in large part because of the pandemic, MacMillan decided last year that it would be best to lift their embargo.

But the problem remains. It’s bigger than McMillian, and even bigger than the other big publishers. Amazon is the worst. It is now the dominant e-book platform in the country, and it will not sell them to libraries. Or schools.

Amazon is the only major publishing house to do this. But it just won’t sell e-books to libraries or schools. Amazon also signs exclusive agreements with the authors. Thus, the prices of electronic books are skyrocketing. Even the companies that will sell to libraries, however, scam them: an eBook that sells to the public for $ 10 or $ 15 costs a library $ 60 or $ 80 or $ 100… if they can get it.

Moreover, despite what Amazon would suggest, little money goes to the authors. So even authors who have exclusives with Amazon are speaking out in favor of libraries and free e-book lending.

These predatory behaviors and monopoly practices must be addressed. H6246 won’t entirely solve the problem, but it’s a start.

The General Assembly, with H6246, says quite simply – on behalf of the people of the state – if you want to sell eBooks to Rhode Islanders, you have to sell them to our libraries and schools as well.

The bill would require publishers to offer libraries reasonable terms on e-books and digital audio books – so they in turn can provide them to users. It would also prevent publishers from limiting the number of eBook licenses libraries can purchase on the same date they are available to the public.

The terms offered are very reasonable. Publishers could still limit the number of concurrent users, limit the number of days a user can access, and use technology to prevent a user from keeping an eBook beyond the license term or providing it to other users.

Other states (Maryland, New York) are also considering this, and Rhode Island has played a leadership role. While publishers will tell you that they will be hurt, the reality is that these companies – the Big 5, Amazon, etc. – have done extremely well during the pandemic (everyone is at home watching movies or reading).

They will complain, but the image of a “crying wolf” comes to mind. Libraries that lend books to patrons have not bankrupted publishers. Letting their customers borrow movies hasn’t killed the movie market, and eBook lending won’t spell the end of Amazon and others. The point is, libraries market their product for them.

There is a quote that I love that has been attributed to a number of people (among them – Keith Richards!): “Public libraries are the great equalizer”. And that’s true. Not everyone has the wealth to buy books regularly. Rhode Islanders use their libraries and visit them even more during difficult times (such as pandemics). Many of us use e-books.

I always keep in mind that in every legislative district of the state there are libraries. Call or email your representative and senator. Let them know that you think H6246 is a good bill. Tell them you want it to become law. Then use your library card and borrow an eBook from the library!

Mark McKenney is a former Senator for District 30 Warwick.

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