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COVID-19 and the Debate Over Library e-books

A few days ago, I was browsing the bookshelves at my house, looking for the next book I wanted to read. My wife—as a much faster reader than I am—has found herself in this situation numerous times over the past week alone. Both of us have remarked over how fortunate we feel, in this strange time, to have an extensive personal library. All those years of asking for books for birthdays and Christmases have, it seems, finally paid off. We’ve gone from wondering “When are we ever going to read all of these?” to calculating how long our library will last us if quarantines and stay-at-home orders caused by COVID-19 stretch on for 18 months, as some worst-case scenarios indicate may be necessary. And frankly, if we do run out of books we haven’t read yet, there’s always Harry Potter waiting for the 23rd re-read. 

I’ve been a proponent of physical media for years. I spent my childhood buying CDs, even as iTunes downloads became the go-to way of consuming music. I started collecting vinyl as most people pivoted to Spotify. I still buy DVDs and Blu-rays, even in the age of Netflix (and a million other streaming services). And I have always loved the feel of having a physical book in my hands, so much more than reading on a Kindle or iPad. But I’ll admit that, if I’d ever been asked to make a pro-con list in regards to physical media, I wouldn’t have thought to include “You’ll have plenty of options at your fingertips if a pandemic hits” in the “pro” column. And yet, somehow, here we are. Bookstores are closed. Libraries are closed. Amazon has pivoted to prioritizing shipments of medical supplies and household essentials, meaning even the world’s biggest bookstore is no longer a reliable place to buy books. 

The closure of libraries is particularly troubling, given the fact that COVID-19 has quickly ignited what will likely prove to be one of the biggest economic recessions in history. Libraries, those bastions of free books and knowledge, were always an equalizer in times like these: a mechanism that would allow anyone to access a massive array of books, even if they couldn’t afford to pay for them. Buying books in 2020 is still possible: you can purchase them on e-book, or buy an Audible subscription, or place an order from non-Amazon online sellers like Barnes & Noble. But if you’ve recently been laid off, or if your family is cutting back on nonessential purchases to make ends meet, your discretionary budget for buying books might be nonexistent.  

There’s a potential solution here, in the form of library e-books. Being able to “borrow” an e-book allows the same free accessibility as a trip to the public library, without any violations to our current “social distancing” statutes. Even if your local library is closed to the public, you can probably still check out an e-book or audiobook, so long as you have a library card and an internet connection and know the right site to visit. Despite these benefits, though, or perhaps because of them, a huge debate has broken out in the publishing world about the legality and morality of libraries lending out e-book titles. 

In February, I predicted that 2020 would see publishers and libraries waging “an important battle over e-book borrowing.” While I certainly didn’t foresee the context in which that prediction would come true, there can be no doubt that this dispute is taking place right before our eyes. The biggest battleground, at this point, is not any one city’s public library system, but the Internet Archive’s “National Emergency Library.” The Internet Archive, known particularly for “The Wayback Machine,” has always touted a mission of providing “universal access to all knowledge.” The National Emergency Library has taken that mission to a new level. For years, the Internet Archive has worked with libraries to scan books and make them available digitally—albeit, in limited quantities as enforced by a waitlist system. With the National Emergency Library, the Internet Archive has eliminated the waitlist requirement for the more than 1.4 million titles in its collection. The collection includes an array of iconic works, ranging from the plays of William Shakespeare to the Harry Potter series to J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings—among many, many others. 

Making all these books so readily accessible sounds like a pretty generous thing to do given what the world is experiencing right now. Not everyone sees it that way, though. The Authors Guild has condemned the Internet Archive for committing an act tantamount to piracy, and for using the COVID-19 epidemic “as an excuse to push copyright law further out to the edges.” The United Kingdom-based Society of Authors labeled the Internet Archive’s actions as “disgraceful.” Individual authors have criticized the National Emergency Library, too, and it wouldn’t be entirely surprising if publishers come calling with lawsuits. For its part, the Internet Archive has said that any author can opt out of being featured in the library; the organization will take down any books if asked to do so by rights-holders. 

Technically, the Internet Archive is not an e-book library, but a collection scanned books that can be read as if they were e-books. Still, the debate over the National Emergency Library could prove to be the litmus test for how digital book lending is treated in the future—especially digital book lending without waitlists or other similar restrictions. The big question at this point is whether any publisher will want to have that debate right now. If those debates do take place, the Internet Archive is almost certain to come out looking like the good guy: the selfless hero making the written word available to the world for free, in a time of economic crisis and lots of fear and uncertainty. Authors and publishers have every right to defend their intellectual property against infringement, but whether they do so now—and what implications their decisions have for the future of copyright in the book world—will be fascinating to see.


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Craig Manning is currently studying English and Music at Western Michigan University. In addition to writing for IndependentPublisher.com, he maintains a pair of entertainment blogs, interns at the Traverse City Business News, and writes for Rockfreaks.net and his college newspaper. He welcomes comments or questions concerning his articles via email, at manningcr953 (at) gmail.com.

 


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