A Publication of the Public Library Association Public Libraries Online

Amazon, E-books, Copyright, and Libraries

by on May 18, 2021

What follows should not come as a surprise. The rules libraries must abide by in order to provide e-books and e-audio to our patrons are overly strict and often make for an exorbitant cost. Librarians are familiar with this situation and adjust as best we can. We split our collection money between physical materials and e-resources to serve shifting patron expectations, while still maintaining the more traditional library collection. Amazon has intensified these issues by refusing to allow libraries to purchase copies of the e-books they publish. That means more than 10,000 e-books and tens of thousands of audiobooks are simply not available to our patrons. Amazon is now one of the largest publishers of e-books. Such decisions by large publishers threaten the very purpose of libraries, to make information accessible to everyone. So what can we do?  

Stay aware of the situation and help spread the word. Lean on ALA and other professional organizations in their advocacy programs. Support those organizations because they support us. If patrons ask why an e-book is not available and you find that it is published by Amazon, be honest. Tell your local leaders about the problem. Ultimately, we need to advocate for a change in copyright law as it relates to digital materials. Pay attention to actions at the state level. A bill introduced in Maryland would require publishers to offer their titles to libraries. Learn how to advocate for similar legislation in your own state.

The first sale doctrine allows the owners of a copyrighted work the right to sell, lend, or share their copies without having to obtain permission or pay fees. This is the element of copyright law that allows libraries to lend books to our users. However, copyright related to e-books does not follow this same concept. The laws created have tipped too far in the direction of protecting copyright owners and publishers in the digital space. The current landscape forces libraries to abide by the access models created by publishers in order to provide these materials to our patrons, and in the case of Amazon, not at all. A long-term solution is desperately needed.  

In a Washington Post article, Mikyla Bruder, Publisher at Amazon Publishing is quoted in an email as saying, “It’s not clear to us that current digital library lending models fairly balance the interests of authors and library patrons. We see this as an opportunity to invent a new approach to help expand readership and serve library patrons, while at the same time safeguarding author interests, including income and royalties.” These words sound encouraging; however, libraries rightfully remain skeptical. Do we believe Amazon is acting in an altruistic manner, or simply protecting their profits? While we can recognize the difference between a physical book and a digital copy and understand the need to treat these materials differently, we also must analyze the laws created which have allowed publishers to set overly restrictive terms to the detriment of the greater good.  

In 2019 testimony to Congress, ALA described the current landscape surrounding digital materials as a “particularly pernicious new form of the digital divide.”  One that “prevents libraries from accomplishing their democratizing missions of providing equal access to information.” As we saw with the Macmillan Publishing decision of the past year, this is an issue that requires our constant attention.

Libraries will continue to do our best to balance collection budgets between physical items and e-materials. We will offer various platforms for e-books and e-audio with different models created by publishers and vendors. Our offerings may look robust and healthy to the communities we serve, but behind the scenes, we continue to struggle with rising costs and static budgets. Paying inflated prices for copies of e-books saddled with arbitrary limits, makes our jobs that much more difficult and ultimately negatively impacts our patrons. When publishers like Amazon outright refuse to sell to libraries, this harms society in a way copyright law never intended.

At many of our libraries, we heavily utilize Amazon for all types of purchases including, increasingly book orders. As with society at large, the convenience, speed, and cost makes Amazon an easy choice. The current position of Amazon directly threatens the ability of libraries to fulfill their missions, and in turn, negatively impacts our society. Amazon will likely create, or be forced to create, a way for libraries to purchase and offer their e-books and e-audio.  If we look at the current landscape of digital content rules created by publishers, the chances of Amazon creating something truly beneficial is minimal.In the meantime, we as librarians need to continue advocating for something approaching the simple and empowering first sale doctrine for digital content. After all, we are the ones working to ensure equal access for all.

Further Reading and Resources

ALA eBooks for All (https://ebooksforall.org/)

Copyright for Libraries: First Sale Doctrine (ALA) (https://libguides.ala.org/copyright/firstsale)

ALA Response to the U.S. House of Representatives, Committee on the Judiciary – Competition in Digital Markets (10/15/2019) (http://www.ala.org/news/sites/ala.org.news/files/content/mediapresscenter/CompetitionDigitalMarkets.pdf)

American Libraries “New ALA Report Cites Abusive Pricing, Denial and Delay of Sales to Libraries by Major Publishers” 10/14/2019 (https://americanlibrariesmagazine.org/blogs/the-scoop/new-ala-report-cites-abusive-pricing-denial-delay-sales-libraries-major-publishers/)


Readers First “Amazon Publishing Partners with DPLA to Share Content” 5/18/21 (http://www.readersfirst.org/news)

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