U.S. Congress Investigates Publisher Restrictions on Library E-Books

Yesterday, Senator Ron Wyden (D-Oregon) and Representative Anna Eshoo (D-California) sent an inquiry to each of the “Big Five” book publishers to investigate their activities in the library e-book market. As the Senator and Congresswoman noted, rather than simply selling books to libraries, publishers insist on using “restrictive and expensive licensing agreements,” leaving libraries to face with “skyrocket[ing]” prices and temporary “leases,” “often at a much higher markup than what the average consumer pays for the same title.” 

These practices have led to outcry by librarians and others around the world, including the #ebookSoS Campaign to Investigate the Academic eBook Market. Following careful reporting on the topic in The Nation, the Daily Beast, and the New Yorker, as well as campaigning by Library Futures and others, the Wyden-Eshoo inquiry seeks information on the restrictions the publishers place on their e-books, their outsize costs, and any legal actions they have taken to prevent libraries from engaging in traditional lending practices, among other things. The publishers have until October 7 to respond.

We are pleased that government officials are looking carefully at these issues. Libraries need to be able to buy books; publisher licensing models restrict libraries’ core functions of preservation and lending. That is why we have long sought to actually purchase e-books from publishers. But the big publishers, in a curiously coordinated fashion, have refused to do so—instead using the digital transition to impose onerous and expensive licenses on libraries, and to sue the Internet Archive for doing digitally what libraries have always done physically, preserve and lend books. This letter shows that some in Washington, if not in the publishing houses, still have the public interest in mind.

It is also the latest in a groundswell of support for Controlled Digital Lending. As the letter notes, “it is imperative that libraries can continue their traditional lending functions” in the digital age. Controlled Digital Lending allows libraries to do just that. The Boston Library Consortium, the International Federation of Library Associations, and even large commercial organizations like ProQuest are lining up behind Controlled Digital Lending. 

To learn more about CDL, and the importance of digital ownership for the future of libraries, consider joining our virtual Library Leaders Forum this October.

7 thoughts on “U.S. Congress Investigates Publisher Restrictions on Library E-Books

  1. Adam S Yik

    Glad to hear that a major government agency is aware of this and is taking action.

    Also, do most smaller publishers and indie authors are more tolerant (allowing) with ebook purchasing (not licensing)?


    This type of business practice is not new, this started with software around the time computers went popular, many proprietary software often comes with EULA that takes away the rights of what copyright’s exemptions was supposed to guarantee to the public. Things like reverse-engineering, for example, by violating that term against it, even if it is fair use, you are breaking contract law. These contracts essentially creates a universe of what if the united states did not have fair use. That, along with DMCA’s section 1201, is one of the ways companies managed to avoid copyright’s limitation and exemptions.

    This happens on several proprietary software on both a 1-time purchase[1] or a subscription[2]. Both are more like a lease in terms of the restriction, with the latter even more of a lease in terms of requiring a periodic payment, for continued access.

    This business practice being applied against something that is a public benefit makes my blood boil. I’ve seen the deterioration (in some cases, doesn’t even start out good, it starts out bad instead, and gets worse) of the user’s rights over time on pretty much anything that is software:

    -Single player video games can “expire”, rendering the game permanently unplayable because the company no longer supports it anymore (such as shutting down their servers, and the DRM requires a connection to that, effectively the company has the control of disabling the use of the software remotely).

    -Adobe. Recently I watched this: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DEP_7_gx6M8 (and I want you to watch it too), and also joined the subscription-only gravy train (in 2012) as well. Thankfully, these software are mostly functional and there is no way the company can stop other people from making free and open source alternatives made from scratch. F**k off adobe, I’m leaving.

    “you will own nothing and be happy”
    I’ll won’t be happy to own nothing, so neither do libraries.

    [1] These are often a “perpetual license”, the company cannot decide you can no longer use the product as long as you follow the terms on your side. So it is only up to the user on when the license terminates (this does not include, things like periodic activations, anything company-sided).

    [2] This is known as “software-as-a-service”, much like an electricity bill, the user must keep paying for continued use of the service. You could say this is the opposite of the perpetual license.

  2. Jonathan

    Great to see the government is taking an action in this. Most paper books are read by at least two people, and very often more. Read by other members of the family, lent to friends, and donated to a charity shop, where the cycle repeats.

  3. A Packed Lunch

    I don’t know much about how libraries work and funding allocation, but I’m sincerely wondering if libraries are spending money on diverse titles? If not, I could see a danger of libraries only being interested in mainstream titles and becoming no different than a bookstore.

    1. Sarah

      Actually, libraries are likely spending MORE on diversity, equity, and inclusion titles (DEI). Not being able to afford the big publishers, libraries turn to smaller, more niche publishers who are more likely to publish non-mainstream titles. DEI is always an important factor when doing collection development. Public libraries cater to their communities, and while this may include popular titles, a good collection will have minority representation as well. I worked in a branch which had a section of books in Vietnamese, as there were Vietnamese immigrants who lived in the region. Libraries have often been safe havens for marginalized groups, and everybody should feel welcome and represented there.

  4. Benjamin Green

    I can’t afford to buy books anymore so I’m an extensive library user, including on occasion, the archive library when I can no longer find a book locally.

    But I have to point out, how do you protect the valid interests of the author?

    When a local library buys a print book, it’s circulation is within a limited geographic area, it wears out eventually or needs to be let go because of limited shelf space, and sufficient copies need to be acquired so readers don’t have indefinite waits.

    The author makes some money.

    When both the library and privately purchased books end up in the “used” book stream, their travels are again local and limited. Their final destination the trash can.

    But digital information doesn’t wear out, can be replicated perfectly and indefinitely, and distributed with no geographic limits whatsoever.
    It’s a different animal than paper.

    There has to be some system to fairly recompense, primarily, the authors, and to a lesser extent, the publisher.

    And comparisons to open source aren’t fair. People who create open source do so with free distribution and participation in mind from the start. Authors, while they may provide occasional free offerings, are trying to make a living like the rest of us.

    The good thing to me about the hearings is that this brings the issue out into the open and maybe some reasonable solution can be hammered out.

    1. Sarahbrarian

      I agree, authors need to get paid. But it’s not the libraries cutting into their profits- I don’t think they’re getting enough from the publishers to begin with. Large publishers are not known for fair business practices.
      Yes, when a library purchases a physical copy, they make a sale, and when that copy wears out/gets replaced, it’s another purchase (plus consider a library system with more than one branch- that’s more copies!). This is not the only benefit the library provides the author. Libraries are FREE PUBLICITY. Librarians give reading recommendations, create book displays, and organize author events and book clubs (more copies!). Plus, accessibility means more people read your work, and the more people who read your work, the more people are likely to buy a copy, or buy the next title in a series.
      When it comes to digital copies, libraries get screwed. We don’t pay what an individual will pay for a copy on their Kindle. Libraries are forced to pay three to four times that amount. At an academic library, we’re expected to pay well over $100 for what a student with an ereader would pay $17 for. I’ve seen books with $1000 price tags, and that’s not unusual. And we don’t get to “own” the ebook. We pay for the “privilege of use”. Some publishers say it’s only allowed to “go out” so many times. (As if a digital copy “wears out”?!) If they decide to remove a book from the platform, poof, the book is gone. You don’t get a refund.
      “Oh, you pay extra because you’re sharing the book with many people”. But that’s just it- we’re NOT. Libraries aren’t asking to spread copies all over the Internet (fun as that would be!) They can use (ugh) DRM for good, in order to assure that the ebook can only be accessed by one person at a time, and when it’s “due/returned”, they can’t access it anymore. One copy, one loan, like how CDL works.

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