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E-Books Can Subvert Book Bans, But Corporate Profit-Seeking Stands in the Way

Exorbitant costs and restrictive licenses are obstructing libraries’ efforts to resist book bans via access to e-books.

Two new rows of shelves dedicated to Youth Restricted Books sit mostly empty at the Huntington Beach Central Library in Huntington Beach, California, on February 21, 2024.

The past few years have seen record e-book lending for libraries — as well as record profits for OverDrive, the company that provides e-books access for 95 percent of libraries in the U.S. (OverDrive’s profits have trickled up — the company was bought by the private equity firm K.K.R. in 2015.) But as library e-book lending has taken off, so has another trend: book bans. Book bans, library board takeovers and efforts designed to remove books from school and public library shelves are rampant, with 158 bills attempting to ban everything from books to drag queen story times introduced in state legislatures in 2023.

E-Books Help Expand Banned Book Access — at a Cost

Libraries have been quick to push back and to find ways to do what they’ve always done: provide books and information for their patrons in whatever ways they can. E-books have been an enormous boon in that effort. The Brooklyn Public Library (BPL) started Books Unbanned in April 2022 in response to the rise in book bans around the country. The program is geared toward teens because teen books are among the most targeted by book banners, particularly those by and about LGBTQ people, as well as Black people, Indigenous people and other people of color (BIPOC). Teens can email the library and sign up for a card that gives them access to BPL’s entire digital collection, including a collection of always available banned and challenged books.

“We had thought we’d maybe do this for a month, maybe a couple hundred people would apply, and then we’d wrap it up,” Leigh Hurwitz, collections manager at the Brooklyn Public Library said in an interview with Truthout. Hurwitz joined the project a month after its launch to help with the volume of messages and still reads all the emails that come in. More than 7,000 teens now have library e-cards through Books Unbanned, and hundreds have participated in intellectual freedom meetups, book discussions and other programs. Four other major urban libraries have adopted versions of Books Unbanned in years since: Boston Public Library, LA County Library, San Diego Public Library and Seattle Public Library.

Another effort to provide access to banned books comes from the Digital Public Library of America (DPLA), founded in 2013 to “maximize [Americans’] access to our shared history, culture, and knowledge.” Launched by the DPLA in July 2023, “The Banned Books Club” gives patrons who download its app a way to borrow digital versions of books that have been banned in their area.

But while e-books have been a boon for getting books into the hands of readers, they have also proved an excellent way for publishers to control library access to those books through exorbitant prices and licensing agreements that strip libraries of many of their traditional rights and of their ability to perform their basic functions. Library patrons may think their library buys and owns the e-books they borrow, but in reality, publishers only lease e-books to libraries for periods ranging from 26 checkouts to two years. It’s as if your local public library had to rent a book from a streaming service every time you wanted to check one out — except that a book that costs $15 for a consumer costs a library $55.

Publishers have long espoused their opposition to censorship and commitment to the belief that “free people read freely,” but their response to library book bans has primarily consisted of one-time donations and statements on their websites. And while the publishing industry has mostly endorsed the part of freely that means “unimpeded by ideological constraints,” it has been much less supportive of the part that means “without undue economic burden.” Publishers talk a big talk, but they fall down when it comes to supporting broader information access — including access to e-books, the very technology that is supposed to be bridging the banned books divide. That tension is nowhere more apparent than on the Association of American Publishers’ website, which lists “Advocating for Strong Copyright Laws,” “Promoting a Free and Transparent Market,” and “Protecting Freedom of Expression and the Free Exchange of Ideas” as policy priorities. OverDrive reports efforts to “broaden access for all citizens,” but its pricing all still depends on licensing.

Fighting for Fairer E-Book Costs Through Legislation

While they’ve been standing up to book bans, librarians and library organizations have also been hard at work trying to fight back against publishers and platforms that effectively gatekeep books another way — through economics. Libraries that want to loan e-books through the Libby app must first play a yearly platform fee to OverDrive and then rent the books they want to provide for as long as they want to have them on their digital shelves, subject to the whims of publishers who can and do change the terms of a lease from year to year. Through legislation and activism, libraries and their allies hope to reshape a landscape that has been overtaken by the oligopoly often referred to as “The Big 5” — the five publishing houses that control 80 percent of the U.S. book market.

Library patrons may think their library buys and owns the e-books they borrow, but in reality, publishers only lease e-books to libraries for periods ranging from 26 checkouts to two years.

In Maryland, St. Mary’s County Library Director and Project Manager for Readers First Michael Blackwell is focused on getting better licensing terms for libraries. He got involved in library e-books over a decade ago when he was assigned to oversee the Columbus Metropolitan Library’s e-books rollout. In an interview with Truthout, Blackwell noted that early on, library e-books were challenging mostly from the technology side, but “after about 2013-2014 it was no longer the case that it took 21 steps to get an e-book into a library patron’s hand. And we worked with the library vendors to streamline the services. And they all bought in. They had a stake in that being a better experience.” But as the technical side of e-books improved, the economic side for libraries got worse. Publishers no longer offered perpetual access to titles at hardcover prices, and the kinds of licensing agreements we see now began to roll out.

Blackwell doesn’t blame the publishers and says he can live with licensing — he just wants libraries to have better and fairer terms, and he’s been involved in efforts to pass state legislation to regulate the library e-books market. Although the first attempt at legislation in Maryland failed, bills have now been put forward in more than eight other states.

“The ultimate aim is to try to get five or six state laws passed, and then hope that the federal government says, ‘Okay, this is a mess. We’ve been kicking the can down the road for 30 years on this digital copyright stuff. It’s time for us to look at this and say, libraries have a vital function. We need to carve out special exemptions for them and make the terms under which they get books more fair.’”

The Dream of Digital Ownership for Libraries

Others go further than calling for better licensing terms — they want libraries to be able to buy and own e-books in the same way as print books. Digital ownership is not a new idea or one unique to books. Vernor v. Autodesk ruled that you could not resell software, even if it had been legally acquired, if the software came with a licensing agreement forbidding resale. The shift from ownership to licensing has harmed everyone from people who have to license Microsoft Office every year to farmers who have had to fight for the right to repair their own tractors.

Writer, editor and information activist Maria Bustillos is the founder of The Brick House cooperative and the newly launched Flaming Hydra newsletter, both projects that aim to give authors a say in the publication, sale and distribution of their work. Bustillos sees these and other projects like them as ways for authors to change the paradigm. “I think it’s possible for a book author to say to a publisher, ‘I don’t want to make this deal unless you can ensure that my book will be available for ownership by libraries,’ whether it’s an e-book or a paper book, or whatever,” Bustillos told Truthout.

Authors Alliance is an organization devoted to helping authors understand and advocate for just such rights. Director Dave Hansen said in an interview with Truthout that he supports library e-book legislation and sees hope in authors and independent publishers pushing for digital ownership. But, he noted, “I don’t think this is going to be an issue that somebody just comes up with some sort of silver bullet and fixes it. It’s going to be a slog.”

Juliya Ziskina, policy fellow at the eBook Study Group, which develops and promotes state e-books legislation, told Truthout that “the state e-book bills are not a solution to the digital ownership problem … because, well, they’re still not libraries owning their books. They’re still licenses.” But while digital ownership might be the ultimate goal, Ziskina sees the legislation as a crucial stepping stone. “Libraries need help, now. These terms and these costs are out of control. They’re becoming unsustainable.” Like Blackwell, she hopes that someday Congress and the courts can tackle the issue of copyright in the digital age and shift the paradigm such that a book is legally a book no matter what form it takes.

In the meantime, Books Unbanned at BPL continues to answer emails from teens across the country — teens who have little or no access to books at all where they live, teens who need e-books and audiobooks for their accessibility features, teens who’ve been bullied for their gender identity, teens who look to libraries as a refuge and as a place to find community. Hurwitz says as the emails from teens applying for cards came in, “we saw a lot of really heartbreaking stories about not just lack of access, but feeling personally affected because queer teens, BIPOC teens are seeing books about them being challenged and banned and sort of being told that they don’t belong in public life or in society themselves.”

BPL continues to provide those teens with books. Books Unbanned is entirely privately funded, and the library has no plans to end it. But the cost of paying — and paying and paying — for all those e-books is not cheap, and the very publishers and platforms that make grand statements about the freedom to read show no indication that they want to help lower the costs.

The Association of American Publishers, the trade group of the U.S. publishing industry (some of whose members are embroiled in another case about digital library lending, this one with the Internet Archive) did not respond to request for comment for this story. David Burleigh, director of corporate outreach and development marketing for OverDrive, said in an email that, “We certainly stand with libraries in their efforts” but “we are not providing much support for Books Unbanned.”

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