E-Books and Libraries: Not So Fast!

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The Montgomery County Council, which presides over my home jurisdiction and which includes my favorite person (my wife Nancy), is considering a resolution demanding that various state and federal government organs act immediately to ensure that the county’s library users have access to e-books in a “reasonable and non-discriminatory manner.”

The only problem with this resolution is that County residents already have exactly such access.  What the resolution sponsors want is specially-advantaged access that discriminates against everyone else.  I have submitted the following statement on this subject for the public record:

Traditionally, the publishing industry, and writers, have subsidized the public library system, a system that is undeniably socialist.  A single library book, which may generate $2 in revenue for a writer, can be loaned out dozens of times.  At least some of those borrowers were likely to have purchased the book, but writers and publishers have been willing to forego that income because of their largely sentimental wish to support public libraries.  Many writers have fond memories of libraries of their youths, where their love of the written word was nourished.  Similarly, writers and publishers forego revenues altogether in the making of recorded books for the blind.

 “E-books, however, raise special problems.  A library book will eventually become too tattered to continue lending.  If it is a popular volume, the library will buy another.  That never happens with e-books.  They never degrade.  They are perpetual.  That harms writers directly.

“Different publishers have taken different approaches to the problem of library distribution of e-books.  Some simply refuse to sell e-books to libraries.  Others charge premium prices for e-books.  Others will license an e-book only for a specified number times it may be loaned out:  for example, the license may expire after 26 times being loaned. 

“These responses to the problem of library distribution of e-books are neither discriminatory nor wrong.  They respond to a special problem presented by the lending of e-books for free.  What other products in our world are given away for free?  Does Microsoft give away its software?  Does Exxon give away its gasoline?  Does the library get its furniture for free? 

“Moreover, with digitization, the economics of the publishing industry are in wild flux.  Authors’ incomes are declining because authors earn less on e-books than on physical books.  Other negative forces are the disappearance of retail outlets for books, not to mention the shrinkage and disappearance of book reviews in magazines and newspapers. 

“Article 1, Section 8, clause 8 of the U.S. Constitution specifically provides for a system of copyright protection for the creations of authors because the Framers recognized that a vibrant political and civic culture requires that authors receive fair compensation for their work, and that the written word is uniquely vulnerable to being stolen.  Books are the means for sharing the most important ideas of our time:  in politics, in science, in history, in culture, and in the lives of our imaginations.  If those who write books do not receive fair compensation — as is true in modern Russia and China, where book piracy is pandemic – the book culture will shrivel and die, leaving a nation that is poorer in ideas and understanding.”

Oh, and Nancy Floreen is NOT sponsoring this resolution, though she does dress up a blog post!

Nancy Floreen, Montgomery County Council

Nancy Floreen, Montgomery County Council

Comments

  1. Petrus says

    You wrote:

    If those who write books do not receive fair compensation — as is true in modern Russia and China, where book piracy is pandemic – the book culture will shrivel and die, leaving a nation that is poorer in ideas and understanding.

    Mr Stewart, I assume that you are a man of fundamentally positive intentions.

    I wish, however, that there was a way that I could communicate to you, convincingly, that what you have stated here is demonstrably false; and that the consequences of you and others, despite having said positive intentions, continuing to entertain such false ideas, are potentially extremely dangerous.

    I have used the Internet since 1995. Before that, for one year I used a number of local Bulletin Board Systems that were operating in my area of residence. As an example of the sort of material which was accessible via these resources, if you are willing, I would encourage you to make at least a cursory examination, of the directory of the following site:-

    http://www.textfiles.com/directory.html

    While probably a third of the material there may be copyrighted material, at least 50-66% of it is not, but is entirely original, and was written for the specific medium in which it was created. I would also, further encourage you to seek out the many repositories online, of fan fiction that has been written about characters from television series and other media, which has been written by people entirely recreationally, for no monetary recompense whatsoever.

    The Internet used to be a primarily textual medium. As a result of this, the writing and reading of text was, for us who used it at that time, literally our means of mobility; analogous to walking within a physical environment. Hopefully, this will demonstrate to you, just how utterly false, your assertion is, that unless they are written for money, books will cease to exist. Books have been written for thousands of years, for a multitude of different reasons. In less pathological societies than our own, people created art as a means of therapy; and that included literature.

    Again, the main reason why I must attempt to impress you of the falsity of your thinking here, is not to attack you personally, but because such thinking is enormously conducive to, and supportive of, fascistic tyranny. Your country currently exists in a gravely perilous state, politically; and the enlightenment of even one individual, could potentially make an enormous difference. I would, therefore, encourage you to develop a greater degree of affection for genuine liberty; not merely for the sake of others, but most immediately for your own.

    http://questioncopyright.org/promise – This article presents more information about the initial history of copyright, within thirteenth century England. I would beseech you to read it.

    • David Stewart says

      This comment includes some truth — some writing will continue without compensation — but chooses to ignore the plain fact that much writing will not occur without compensation. I fail to see why a free market in written works, which this commenter evidently applauds, should not also fairly reward the writer.

      I also fail to grasp any connection between wanting writers to receive fair compensation and “fascistic tyranny.”

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