Librarians aim for better e-book accessibility

Kai Ryssdal and Aleezeh Hasan Jun 20, 2024
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"Because the copies that we circulate have digital rights management on them, we don't feel that we are violating anything having to do with copyright," says Sarah McCusker, head of the Connecticut Library Association. Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images

Librarians aim for better e-book accessibility

Kai Ryssdal and Aleezeh Hasan Jun 20, 2024
Heard on:
"Because the copies that we circulate have digital rights management on them, we don't feel that we are violating anything having to do with copyright," says Sarah McCusker, head of the Connecticut Library Association. Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images
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In the current digitized world, many readers are opting to read in nontraditional formats such as e-books. And while those book rentals might be free for library patrons on apps like Libby or Hoopla, libraries are still on the hook for the licensing fees for these books — and they’re not cheap.

Librarians in Connecticut, Maryland and Hawaii have all been pushing for the expansion of greater access to e-books in their states. Sarah McCusker, head of the Connecticut Library Association, is one of them. She spoke to “Marketplace” host Kai Ryssdal about it. Below is an edited transcript of their conversation.

Kai Ryssdal: For those who are unfamiliar, how does the business end of e-books work for a public library?

Sarah McCusker: So a lot of people have this misconception that we just have access to every e-book that’s out there. We don’t. We have to purchase copies of it, just like we purchase copies of regular print items. We have to purchase them from the publishers. We don’t have any opportunity to do any comparison shopping, we’re basically tied into what the publishers charge us.

Ryssdal: So, speaking of charges. Let’s say you want, I don’t know, pick your New York Times bestseller. How much is a license going to cost you? How long do you have it for, you know?

McCusker: So when we buy print copies, we get substantial discounts. So we can get a print copy of your average hardcover bestseller for, you know, $15. If we get the e-book, it might be $100, $120 and we only have that for two years, or 26 checkouts.

Ryssdal: Sorry, 26 checkouts so, so if I’m number 27 I’m out of luck.

McCusker: If you’re number 27 you’re out of luck. If you’re waiting for that item and our license has expired, we need to purchase it again, and generally speaking, when we purchase it again, we’re paying the same inflated price that we paid initially. We don’t get like a like a renewal price or anything like that.

Ryssdal: Publishers who have taken on this case, as you and other states present bills to try to do something about this, basically say you’re depriving authors of copyright, and fundamentally you’re interfering with with interstate commerce. What do you say?

McCusker: So because the copies that we circulate have digital rights management on them, we don’t feel that we are violating anything having to do with copyright. Basically all that we’re saying is that the authors get paid based on the number of copies that they sell. They get the same amount in their contract regardless of whether an individual purchase it or a library purchases it.

Ryssdal: Right. I don’t suppose the ‘public libraries are a civic good’ argument does you any good in this case?

McCusker: It doesn’t seem to, no.

Ryssdal: So where do you go from here? Because if you don’t have any opportunity to pass legislation, or if it gets overturned in court, as at least one of these laws has been, seems library patrons are on the losing end.

McCusker: Correct. The demand for downloadable materials just keeps going up and up and up. But unfortunately, our ability to purchase those items does not go up. You know, we liken it to if your town puts in a playground, everyone loves the playground, everyone wants to use the playground, but then imagine that that playground had a two year expiration date on it, and so at the end of two years, there might be people lined up to use that playground, but they can’t use it until we pay again. And like I say, we’re paying the same amount for that playground we paid the first time around. Meanwhile, people are standing there, they can see that it is available, but they can’t actually access it.

Ryssdal: There is a middleman here, right between the libraries and the publishers. It’s the e-book, you know, apps or what have you, Libby, OverDrive, I’ve used them both. Where do they play in this? Because they, you know, they kick in a little markup of their own too, right?

McCusker: Right? They do. The big thing on our end is that, you know, we don’t have any other alternatives. And ultimately, we aren’t looking for kind of unfettered access to these materials. We just want to be able to negotiate with the publishers to get terms that allow us to better serve our patrons.

Ryssdal: It’s a seller’s market, right? I mean, they kind of got you,

Sarah McCusker: Yeah, absolutely, because that’s our only option. We buy them at their prices, or we don’t have them at all.

We reached out to the Authors Guild for comment. Below is their response:  

Mary Rasenberger, CEO of Authors Guild and member of Protect the Creative Economy

“These state bills are opposed by authors, independent bookstores, newspapers, and others because they strip away the constitutional rights of the creative community. They are clearly preempted by the federal copyright laws that protect American creativity. Courts have declared them to be unconstitutional, and states across the country have rejected them.

Authors and publishers invest massive amounts of time and resources to create books. They also work diligently to ensure that libraries have broad access to the materials they create, which has resulted in an environment in which library patrons can – and do – borrow literary works in digital formats at a greater volume than ever before in history. The terms on which they sell their work should not be dictated by the state.

These ill-considered bills detract from the real issue of giving libraries the funding they need to fulfill the growing demands of their communities. They unfairly target publishers and authors who play a crucial role in American creativity, endangering their ability to make a living with their pen.

Specifically relevant to the Connecticut bill, please see also the attached letter in which nearly 70 authors recently wrote to the state legislature strongly opposing this legislation and calling on them ‘to identify mechanisms to support its libraries, so that they can afford to buy books at market prices, rather than shift the economic burden onto authors who can least afford it.’ 

The letter can also be found at this link: https://authorsguild.org/news/connecticut-ag-members-oppose-state-ebook-licensing-bill/.”

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