Publishers want to make ebooks more expensive and harder for libraries to lend; Ron Wyden and Anna Eshoo have questions

from end of ownership department

Techdirt has noted in the past that if public libraries didn’t exist, the copyright industry would never allow their creation. Editors can’t go back in time to change the story (thankfully). But the COVID pandemic, which has largely prevented people from borrowing physical books, has presented publishers with a huge opportunity to make it as difficult as possible for libraries to lend newly popular ebooks.

A UK campaign to combat this development in the academic publishing world, called #ebookSOS, spells out the problems. Ebooks are often not available for institutions to license as ebooks. When offered, they can cost ten times or more the price of the same paper book. The #ebookSOS campaign has put together a spreadsheet listing dozens of named examples. A title costs 29.99? as a physical book and 1,306.32? for a single-user e-book license. As if those prices weren’t high enough, it’s common for publishers to raise the cost without warning and withdraw ebook licenses already purchased. One of the worst aspects is this:

Publishers are increasingly offering titles through an e-textbook model, through third-party companies, licensing content for use by specific, highly restricted cohorts of students on an annual basis. The quotes for these are usually hundreds or even thousands of times more than a print title, and this must be paid for each year in order for new cohorts of students to gain access. This is exclusive, limits interdisciplinary research and is not sustainable.

Although #ebookSOS is a UK campaign, the problem is global, as publishers try to change the nature of e-book lending everywhere. Ron Wyden and Anna Eshoo have noticed this happening in the US and seem unimpressed with the moves in the publishing industry, as a letter to the CEO of Penguin Random House (pdf) makes clear:

Many libraries face financial and practical challenges in making e-books available to their users, which compromises their ability to fulfill their mission. We understand that these difficulties arise because e-books are typically offered under more expensive and limited licensing agreements, unlike print books which libraries can typically purchase, own, and lend on their own terms. These licensing agreements, the terms of which are set by individual publishers, often include restrictions on lending, transfer, and reproduction, which may conflict with libraries’ ability to lend books, as well as exceptions and limitations of copyright. Under these arrangements, libraries are forced to rent books through very restrictive agreements that resemble leases.

The letter asks for answers to nine detailed questions about restrictions on the use of e-books, the price of physical and digital books, as well as information on legal actions that have been taken in response to things like checkouts. digital text multiples, interlibrary loans, controlled digital loans, and institutions making digital copies of physical books they own.

This is an extremely important battle, as it is clear that the publishing world sees this as a unique chance to redefine what libraries can do with e-books. This is part of the much larger and very troubling trend of turning everyone into tenants and causing the end of ownership.

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Filed Under: anna eshoo, ebooks, libraries, publishers, ron wyden