Tag Archives: books

Why are authors against libraries?

I just read Stealing Atwood, an article by BC author Michael Elcock.

I recently downloaded, at home, twenty-one copies of Margaret Atwood’s best-selling novel Alias Grace from a B.C. library. I did it by accident, but if I was able to stagger the sign-out dates, and renew each of these digital copies, Alias Grace could remain in my possession for a long time.

Victoria-born Julie Lawson, who has written more than twenty books for young people, had no idea that one of her books for children, Cougar Cove, first published in 1994, is also available, free, via digital download, from most libraries in the province.

Atwood and Lawson’s books are available through the BC government’s Libraries Without Walls programme, launched in 2004 with an initial $12 million grant. The project involved the expansion of broadband across the province, and set out to improve access to books and journals. It has grown into a big initiative to increase the number of eBooks, audio books and periodicals in BC’s libraries—downloadable right to your home. 

To develop Libraries Without Walls, extensive consultations were held with sixty-six libraries, several BC government ministries, unions, schools, municipal representatives and the BC Chamber of Commerce. Unfortunately, the folks who in Canada own the legal copyright to the primary assets (the books)—the writers—were not invited. 

From my perspective, the author is probably right that libraries are infringing copyright, and I’m a little surprised the programme was approved for a government grant (except that digitizing collections is standard operating procedure for libraries nowadays, and it would be an absolute shame if Canadian books were among the last books in the world to be available digitally because of backward thinking).
But from a business perspective, the guy sounds like a horse vendor in 1909 complaining about automobiles being allowed to drive on roadways. He writes,

“There can be little question that the digitisation of books by libraries and their surrogates will have a significant impact on a writers’ ability to make a living—to the extent that some writers may wish to have library use specifically excluded in future contractual agreements with their publishers.”

This is patently untrue. It’s just false. It won’t have a significant impact on authors for regional libraries to allow a limited number of customers to have copies of books. Libraries have always allowed a limited number of readers to get books for free — that’s what libraries are for. What’s so special about digital copies that authors should be paid extra so libraries can distribute them?

Not only that, but libraries don’t even pay authors to distribute paper copies of books! They often have books donated or they acquire them second hand or as off-prints and distribute them for free to library patrons. Authors do not generally get paid for library copies of books. Traditionally, publishers don’t like this because they don’t get paid, but authors like it because their works get read by more people. Why does limited digital distribution change the equation?

Oh, and excluding libraries from being allowed to distribute their books? Impossible. Libraries don’t distribute books pursuant to agreements with publishers, so publishers have no control over it. Anybody can lend or sell a copy of a book they already own –it’s called the first sale doctrine, and authors with bees in their bonnets can’t do anything about it (so there).

I could rant on about this — about how the article’s author seems to like the government’s most recent attempt at copyright reform, but doesn’t mention that the Adobe DRM used on the library books is exacty the sort of thing that law would have allowed; about how more and more authors are embracing new models of free distribution and generating increased *sales* as a result… but I’ll restrain myself (barely). Instead, I’ll link to a related article on Techdirt discussing the same issue in the US.

I think I may post this as a blog entry for today. I feel like ranting. And then eating latkes. Happy Chanukah. That is all.

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