Recently library staff had a chat on an all-staff Teams channel. One of us posted an article about ebook pricing. Many staff expressed surprise at how expensive ebooks are.

Someone said: “I bet our patrons would be surprised too.”

Someone else said: “This seems like something we should blog about.”

Thus was the foundation of this new Library Nerd post series. We’re gonna need a catchier title (which I will 100% come up with 5 minutes after this post goes live), ‘cause this may take a while. 

You’d think that ebooks would cost the same for libraries to purchase as it would cost you, an individual consumer. 

You’d think. 

You’d be wrong. 

I’m going to start with an explainer (by a non-lawyer who is 100% not an expert on legal stuff) on the legal underpinnings of how libraries have historically operated. Now that you’re done yawning, seriously, this is where we need to start. Copyright laws are in place to protect content creators, especially creators of works that can be reproduced relatively inexpensively, like books. People who write books do require a financial incentive to do so, and that financial incentive exists by virtue of copyright law. This ensures that the author of a book typically gets compensation in the form of a percentage of every sale (called a royalty).  

As it turns out, though, it’s also U.S. copyright law that supports a library’s right to buy a book, then share it with the whole community it serves.  In Chapter 1, Section 109 of Title 17/US Copyright Law, you will find the clause that allows libraries to do what they do. It’s typically referred to as the “first sale doctrine.” In layperson’s terms, it says that once we own the book, we can do what we want with the book…that the copyright holder gets their money upon original sale of the book and that what happens next is, essentially, none of their business. Thus have libraries circulated materials since 1947, when Title 17 first became law…and libraries were obviously doing it before by virtue of the legal doctrine “possession is nine tenths of the law.” (I’m making that last bit up, but you can read much more about the history of US copyright law if you are interested). As an additional aside: in the U.S., libraries do not compensate the author when we circulate books, but they do in the UK. (You can read more about the Public Lending Rights Scheme if you are interested). 

Clearly, you might point out, when a library buys a book (for which the author gets compensation), the fact that they are going to share it with other people makes clear that they may be working against the best interest of the author…by virtue of the logic that when we circulate a book, we might be sharing it with someone who otherwise might have purchased it. There are a LOT of “mights” in that last sentence. We’ve kind of all tacitly agreed that those “mights” are mighty hard to quantify (see what I did there) and that we’d all just call it a wash. We do regularly end up with lost and damaged books that we must replace. We also do a lot of work cultivating a love of literature that makes a more literate society, thereby creating a bigger market for books. Also: we buy A LOT of books.      

Libraries have a well-documented and legally supported business model. Because we buy so many books, large libraries sometimes even qualify for volume discounts. So libraries may actually pay LESS for a print copy of a book than you would from a bookstore. 

But I already told you that this is NOT how ebooks work.  In fact, they work veeeery differently. You can probably already see that publishers might have been – maybe – wanting to find a way to disrupt the existing model in order to increase revenue because…CAPITALISM. Since ebooks aren’t physical things, the law that governs their use is totally different. So publishers have a chance to relitigate the way libraries purchase books. That is what they have done.  

And that is also what I’ll be writing about next!