Turns out there is something that can garner broad bipartisan support: public libraries.
This week the Maryland legislature became the first state to pass legislation that would ensure libraries can license e-books and other digital "literary" content that is available to consumers. And in a strong sign of support for libraries (especially in these politically divisive times) the bill passed the Maryland General Assembly (both the House of Delegates and the State Senate) unanimously.
First introduced in January, the bill (HB518 in the House of Delegates and SB0432 in the Senate) would require “a publisher who offers to license an electronic literary product to the public to also offer to license the product to public libraries in the State on reasonable terms that would enable public libraries to provide library users with access to the electronic literary product.”
The bill has a few more hurdles, but if signed by Governor Larry Hogan—and it is hard to see how a governor would have grounds to veto a bill that initially passed unanimously in both chambers—the bill could take effect as early as July 1 of this year.
Two other states (New York and Rhode Island) also introduced similar legislation last year to ensure libraries have the ability to license digital content offered to the general public under reasonable terms.
As of 2014, most publishers make their full catalogs available to libraries in some form—though whether or not that access is “reasonable” is an ongoing debate.
Amazon, however, is a different story, and the Maryland law comes as the pressure ramps up on Amazon to make its exclusive digital content available to libraries. Libraries have long complained about Amazon’s refusal to license its digital content to them but last month a public advocacy campaign was launched on the issue, and this week Washington Post reporter Geoffrey Fowler also weighed in in favor of libraries.
“It’s one thing to haggle over business,” Fowler wrote, “but another for Amazon to have the power to unilaterally force libraries to stay in the 20th century.”
One potentially positive development is that Amazon is currently in talks with the Digital Public Library of America to provide library access to e-books from Amazon Publishing. In December, ALA’s Alan Inouye called that news “a promising start” but emphasized it is still just a start.
In a blog post from January, when the Maryland bill was first introduced, Michael Blackwell, director of St. Mary's County Library in Maryland and an organizer of the ReadersFirst coalition (and a supporter of this and other state legislation) insisted the bill was not anti-publisher.
"We want publishers and authors to thrive and we want to work with them in promoting reading. We will negotiate terms with publishers. These bills are pro-reader. We just want residents to have access without undue restriction,” Blackwell explained, adding that "similar federal legislation would be helpful."
Blackwell also told PW he was "encouraged" that Amazon and the DPLA are in talks to make Amazon content available to libraries.
"If Amazon adopts some of DPLA's flexible models they would offer perhaps some of the best terms libraries have with any large of the large publishers and would set an excellent example for others," Blackwell said. "If Audible were to join, so much the better."
This story has been updated for clarity and with additional comments.