A group of authors has teamed up with advocacy group Fight for the Future to publish an open letter demanding that publishers and their trade organizations cease efforts the authors say are undermining libraries. In response, the Association of American Publishers has labeled the campaign "disinformation," while the Authors Guild called the open letter "highly misleading."
The letter, made public on September 29, currently features more than 300 signatories, including Neil Gaiman, Alok Menon, Naomi Klein, Saul Williams, Hanif Abdurraqib, Lawrence Lessig, Chuck Wendig, and Cory Doctorow.
“Libraries are a fundamental collective good,” the letter opens. “We, the undersigned authors, are disheartened by the recent attacks against libraries being made in our name by trade associations such as the Association of American Publishers and the Publishers Association, undermining the traditional rights of libraries to own and preserve books, intimidating libraries with lawsuits, and smearing librarians.”
The letter comes in the middle of a pitched copyright battle over the Internet Archive’s program to scan and lend library books under an untested legal theory known as controlled digital lending, which is now being briefed for a potential summary judgment. In addition, the Association of American Publishers in February successfully sued to block a Maryland law that would have required publishers to offer commercially available e-book licenses to libraries on “reasonable terms.”
More broadly, the letter reflects a contentious decade in the library e-book market, with librarians and library supporters long complaining of a licensed access market marked by unsustainable prices and restrictions, and publishers concerned about the impact of digital lending on sales.
Specifically, the open letter demands "publishers, distributors, and their trade associations":
- Enshrine the right of libraries to own, preserve, and loan books on reasonable terms regardless of format. “It is past time to determine a path forward that is fair to both libraries and authors—including a perpetual model for digital ownership based on the cost to maintain a print edition,” the letter states.
- End lawsuits aimed to intimidate libraries or diminish their role in society. “The interests of libraries are the interests of the public,” the letter reads, “and of any author concerned with equity and longevity for themselves and their fellow writers. We are all on the same side.”
- Halt industry-led smear campaigns against librarians. “Recent comments likening library advocates to 'mouthpieces' for Big Tech are as tasteless as they are inaccurate,” the letter states. “As a last bastion of truth, privacy, and access to diverse voices, libraries’ digital operations grow ever more essential to our society, and their work should be celebrated, not censured.”
Fight for the Future is a small, 10-year-old advocacy group perhaps best known for its campaigns against the ill-fated SOPA/PIPA legislation in 2012, and its defense of net neutrality rules. The group is also a harsh critic of the major tech firms, currently lobbying for antitrust action against them as well as for more digital privacy rights. In July, Fight for the Future issued a statement of support for the Internet Archive in its copyright battle with the publishers.
As expected, the major trade associations are strongly pushing back against the open letter, insisting they do support public libraries, and suggesting that the letter is an Internet Archive–backed PR campaign.
“The lawsuit against Open Library is completely unrelated to the traditional rights of libraries to own and preserve books,” reads a statement issued by the Authors Guild and supported by 17 other writer and creator organizations. “It is about Open Library’s attempt to stretch fair use to the breaking point, where any website that calls itself a library could scan books and make them publicly available, a practice engaged in by e-book pirates, not libraries.”
The AG statement called the campaign "highly misleading," and noted that author Daniel Handler (Lemony Snicket) had initially agreed to sign the letter before "disavowing" it through the Authors Guild. Two Lemony Snicket works are among the 127 allegedly infringed works listed in the lawsuit against the Internet Archive.
"That authors and publishers support libraries is not in dispute and most certainly not at issue in the infringement case against the Internet Archive, which is not a library,” said AAP general counsel Terence Hart, in a statement. "On the contrary, the Internet Archive operates an unlicensed digital copying and distribution business that copies millions of literary works without permission and gives them away for free. This activity is unprecedented and outside any reasonable interpretation of the copyright law that grants to authors the decision as to whether, when, through whom, and on what terms to distribute their works to the public.”
Lia Holland, communications director for Fight for the Future, insisted to PW that the authors signing the open letter (many of whom offered statements of support with their signatures) are concerned with the prospect of a tightly controlled digital library space in which libraries cannot own and collect digital books as they have traditionally done. Furthermore, Holland says that the rhetoric of the publishers and their trade associations has also become an issue, undermining the vital work of libraries at a critical moment in history.
“Because libraries are attempting to defend their age-old right to own, loan, and preserve books regardless of format, some publishers and trade associations are labeling them as pirates or mouthpieces for Big Tech, even naming them as the reason that authors and publishing workers are grossly under-compensated. This sort of rhetoric is excessive, unnecessary, and dangerous. It's damaging to our democracy as well as to the longevity of works from all but the most prominent authors.”
Holland said the major publishers are being “reckless with essential rights,” both in refusing to allow libraries to own and collect digital books as well as in their public comments. “We hope they will listen to the many authors who have signed this letter and check their harmful actions," she said.