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from the oh-come-on dept

For years and years we’ve pointed out that, if they were invented today, copyright maximalist authors and publishers would absolutely scream about libraries and probably sue them out of existence. Some insisted that we were exaggerating, but now we’ve seen nearly all of the big publishers sue the Internet Archive over its digital library that acts just like a regular library.

But, perhaps the most frustrating part in all of this, is that whenever these copyright maximalist authors and publishers are confronted about this, they twist themselves into knots to say “well, I actually love libraries, but…” before beginning a bunch of arguments that show they do not, in fact, like libraries. Sometimes, however rarely, a maximalist just comes out and admits the facts: they fucking hate libraries.

The latest example of this is Kenneth Whyte, a small publisher of Sutherland House Books in Canada, who seemed to think now was the time to take to the pages of The Globe & Mail to whine about libraries competing with book stores that sell books. Of all the things to be bothered with right now. Even the setup of this column is just ridiculous, arguing that libraries — with their public taxpayer funded support — are unfair competitors to booksellers:

Public libraries, too, were affected by the lockdown, with various systems across North America furloughing staff. But libraries operate largely with public funding, which has been disrupted far less than commercial revenues their competitors rely upon. As a result, libraries are likely to gain still more market share at the expense of booksellers in the months and years ahead.

It may seem strange to think of booksellers and libraries as competitors. Most booksellers I know don’t. Ask them to name their competition and they’ll point to Amazon and Indigo, not the public library. There’s a logic to that: They’re booksellers, and libraries don’t sell books.

That, however, is a fatally narrow lens through which to view the book marketplace. Booksellers are in competition with libraries whether they want to admit it or not. Just ask the libraries.

As someone who frequents the library (and was thrilled when our local library finally introduced curbside pickup after months of pandemic closure) but also owns way too many books (and literally has been talking about renovating a large closet in a bedroom to turn it into more bookshelves), it’s silly to argue that the two compete. I end up buying books all the time that I first found at the library. And libraries serve a public service for people who cannot or would not ever buy those books, but for whom having access to those books might be incredibly useful.

This is why we have libraries. But to Whyte, it’s all very unfair. He seems particularly upset that some libraries have advertised the fact that you can borrow books for free as a cheeky way to get people to pay more attention to their local library:

Last November, the Toronto Public Library (TPL) ran this advertisement: “Black Friday Special: 100% Off All Books! Print! Digital! Audio!”

“Don’t miss the deals,” it said, “every day at the TPL.”

It was clever. It was hilarious. Except, perhaps, to people who make a living selling books.

The thing is, libraries have always lent books for free, and the fact that they “compete” with booksellers has never changed the fact that people buy a ton of books. Whyte then goes on to use a calculator set up by the American Library Association to show how much value libraries create each year, and basically uses that to argue that the value of libraries is effectively losses to booksellers. This kind of “we copyright holders must capture all the value” zero sum thinking is ridiculous at the best of times, but is particularly pernicious here. The nature of value creation is that it’s not a zero sum game. Borrowing books from libraries helps to educate people, enables them to do things that, in turn, may help the world in lots of other ways. Some of that may lead to more books sold. Some of that may lead to just society being a better place.

It goes on and on like this for a while, with consistently dubious math about just how much libraries are supposedly stealing from those poor, poor publishers. Of course, towards the end, he includes one of those lame “we love libraries” claims after many paragraphs complaining about libraries:

Writers are loath to draw a line between the fact that they’re poor and the fact that four out of five of their patrons get their books at no charge. Most of us grew up in libraries. We love libraries. Our first library card was as important to us as our first driver’s licence. We do our research in libraries and meet our audiences in libraries. We think libraries are important civic institutions. It is difficult to conceive of them as problematic, so we ignore inconvenient facts to shield libraries from embarrassment.

But then he immediately doubles down on the ridiculous claim that libraries are the problem. Oh sure, he admits, there may be other factors (all of which are dubious, by the way) but the real issue: free books at libraries!

Of course, libraries are not the only reason author incomes are low. There are more authors and more books than ever. Especially in the fiction world, a flood of low-priced, self-published digital offerings has hurt prices for some established, traditionally published authors. Looser copyright laws have hurt sales to educational markets. But these factors pale in comparison to the simple fact that four out of five books are read at no charge.

As for the claim that libraries lead people to buy books — he doesn’t care:

Librarians defend their activities by claiming that they introduce readers to new authors and that surveys show people who borrow books sometimes also buy books. That is all true, but it doesn’t alter the fact that four out of five books are read at no charge.

Even if this is true (and it’s not), that doesn’t mean those 4 other books would have been purchased absent the existence of libraries. So he’s willing to grant that… but only just a little bit — saying that even if 25% of books represented “lost sales” that would be too much.

Librarians claim that a borrowed book is not a lost sale. That would be easier to accept if they weren’t claiming a one-to-one relationship between borrowings and savings in their advertisements. But say only one in four borrowings replaces a sale. Gaining that sale would be sufficient to double the income of our starving authors.

On what does he base that 25% number? No idea. But it’s almost certainly not accurate.

Then he hits back at the idea that people improve their lot in life by having access to a library. Why? Because popular entertainment (gasp!) is available at the library. And apparently that’s bad.

The dirty secret of public libraries is that their stock-in-trade is neither education nor edification. It’s entertainment. The top three reasons people patronize libraries, according to a massive Booknet survey, are to “relax,” for “enjoyment” and “for entertainment.” That is why the TPL system has 90 copies of Fifty Shades of Grey and six copies of Stendhal’s The Red and the Black.

These entertainment readers are not a benighted underclass for whom Tom Clancy is a stepping stone to literacy and employment. They are people who can afford books: disproportionately middle-class, upper middle-class and well-educated.

Pushing bestsellers in competition with book retailers, to the detriment of publishers and authors, has become an addiction for librarians who, again, rely on steady or growing patronage statistics to justify their funding requests.

It has to stop.

No. It doesn’t. Because that’s why libraries exist. There are all sorts of reasons why people go to the libraries — some people get recent books. Plenty of people get other works that they otherwise would never have access to. My own kids now like reading because every week we’d try out new books from the library to find what kinds of books they like — including (gasp!) some “entertainment” books. Should we have had to waste money on lots of books they’d never read until we found the ones they liked?

But, Kenneth Whyte, thanks for making the truth clear: copyright maximalists have always hated libraries. It’s just rare to get one to outright admit it like Mr. Whyte has here.

Whyte concludes with suggestions on how to “fix” the “problem” he concocted himself. He thinks that people should have to pay a subscription fee to borrow books from the library. He also thinks that libraries should pay a lot more for books. Or maybe libraries should just give authors money. He suggests if none of those are okay, then publishers should stop offering their books to libraries (apparently unaware that fair use rights mean they can just go buy the books elsewhere). Of course, this is why we’ve been concerned that publishers have already been trying to jack up the prices on ebook lending for libraries, while limiting how many ebook licenses they can purchase.

The whole article is quite incredible, but at least it’s a copyright maximalist admitting to what many are thinking: they hate libraries and would sue them out of existence if they weren’t grandfathered into our broken copyright system.

Filed Under: books, competition, copyright, free, kenneth whyte, libraries, publishers
Companies: sutherland house books

Categories: Technology