Content Landlords and the Looming Eviction of American Libraries

A photograph of the 3F comics room in the Natural Central Library Arts & Audiovisual Center in Taipei, Taiwan (source: mek, 2021)

Netflix and many other content landlords want to force you to pay rent instead of being able to own your home. This makes them more money. And as soon as you can’t pay, they change your locks and take your home from you.

When you buy a book, you own it. You pay a pretty penny for it, and after you’re done reading, it’s yours to sell, use in an art project, donate, or lend to friends. That’s how it’s always worked.

Or that’s how it used to work… Content landlords are now spending millions to change the rules and convince the public it works differently.

Many content landlords, like Netflix, don’t like the idea of customers owning their own homes. Because it means customers can Airbnb their homes or sell their houses once they’re ready to move. And this is bad news for Netflix because every house you resell is a house Netflix doesn’t get to sell. So they’ve been devising an alternative plan which suits them better.

Instead of buying and owning content, content landlords like Netflix prefer we pay subscriptions (i.e. we pay over and over without actually getting to own the content). OK, so renting, right? That’s not so bad. Where else have we seen this before?

Do you remember renting a VHS or DVD back in the day? If you were a hardcore fan you could see a film in theaters. If on a budget, you might rent the movie for a fraction of the price. Of course, you could wait a few months and then purchase the film eventually. The fact that this purchase option existed is a critically important detail.

Because that is not what’s happening here. When you rented a DVD, you paid a fraction of the cost of purchasing the video. Why? Because the rental price is juxtaposed to the price of buying the video (which includes additional rights, like the freedom to watch whenever you want, indefinitely, and even sell this right to someone else, so long as the product still has perceived value remaining to customers).

What content landlords like Netflix are trying to do now is eliminate our “purchase” option entirely. Without it, renting become the only option and they are thus free to arbitrarily hike up rental fees 📈, which we have to pay over and over again without us getting any of these aforementioned rights and freedoms. It’s a classic example of getting less for more.

This new subscription lock-in model seems to me stacked in content landlords’ favor and has 4 deep (unintuitive) consequences to our society:

  1. The end of forever access: What happens if a content landlord like Netflix goes out of business? Your subscription library disappears with them, forever. Think this will never happen? Think again: https://www.npr.org/2019/07/07/739316746/microsoft-closes-the-book-on-its-e-library-erasing-all-user-content
  2. The end of public domain: The end of forever access has other serious consequences. If content such as eBooks are only ever offered for lease (and never actually owned), and the only way to lease a book is using DRM (Digital Rights Management), how can it ever enter our public domain? Netflix would need to ensure the content remains available for ~100 years (good luck). They’ll only do this if it makes them money, so we’d need to keep renting it to ensure its popularity for the duration of this period (an expensive proposition). Even after this, in order for the content to enter the public domain, Netflix would have to release an un-DRM’d version (good luck, why would they?). Otherwise, someone would have to risk breaking the DRM which appears to be, unto itself, illegal, irrespective of whether the underlying content is public domain. So in practice, a lease-only eBook model seems to spell the end of the public domain by essentially making public domain illegal or impossible by default. I wonder, isn’t such a model itself counter to the entire spirit of copyright?
  3. The end of personal digital freedom: Subscription-only models rob patrons of autonomy, ownership rights, & artistic + creative license. i.e. Netflix shouldn’t get to decide how I use my movies, track me while I’m watching, sell my data, or limit what tools I may use to consume content. Maybe I want to cite a fair-use movie clip in a blog or turn a Chinese movie’s subtitles into Anki flash cards. We should have some control and protections over our customer experience.
  4. The end of the Library Model: By preventing libraries from owning digital materials (and from making their physical materials digital), by forcing a lease model which requires libraries to repurchase materials yearly, and by increase the cost of leasing, content landlords are extorting libraries, diminishing their [i.e. our — we the public fund libraries] purchasing power such that they can afford to re-lease fewer books each year. Content landlords are preventing libraries from making millions of books accessible to the public, forcing libraries to prioritize popular and “cost effective” books at the expense of thousands of culturally significant materials which may only be applicable to a select audience. In short, content landlords are stressing hundreds of libraries financially to the verge of being unable to accomplish their mission of equitable access, and possible eventual collapse. For more specific details, read: “The Uncertain Future of American Libraries”.

The fourth point is one worth investigating further. You may be aware that the status quo is for libraries to buy books & lend them to the public. Here’s a video presentation which explains the basics of US library history at a high level, for anyone interested in the circumstances of its evolution:

A presentation about how the US library model has evolved, and why.

Libraries paid once, and by doing so, decades later, these books eventually enter the public domain. So, the library model has helped secure the public domain. It has also brought access to millions of under-served patrons, while directly supporting authors and publishers by purchasing their book.

And important key lies in what is changing. More and more books are being published digitally instead of on paper. One might think this is a blessing — it means books should be even cheaper — distributing digital assets is much cheaper and faster than printing and shipping books.

Instead of leveraging these technological advancements to increase access and affordability, big content landlords have taken advantage of the underlying technology to do the exact opposite —to design a great artificial subscription paywall around all digital eBooks which raises prices, creates a monopoly around content access, charges non-profit libraries high recurring yearly fees, and prevents libraries, or anyone else, from having an option to buy and own the material. It’s a digital version of the Hoover Dam which has been optimally engineered with technology to generate maximum electricity and profit for the content landlords, while only giving away to customers as much water as they absolutely have to. And when you get the water, you can only use it how they tell you.

Some credit is deserved by OverDrive, the for-profit eBook lending service behind the Libby app, for increasing digital access and giving libraries a way to lend digital material to their patrons. Overdrive negotiates contracts between publishers and libraries which allow US libraries to lend eBbooks to their patrons, online. This gets libraries online, but the victory is bittersweet because the terms are hopelessly lopsidedly and set by the content landlords to be at the expense of the taxpayers (who ultimately fund libraries). The contract rates often exceed the cost of purchasing the entire book outright and must be repaid every few years. Moreover, there’s usually no option to buy the full book. Some libraries are upset because creative attempts by libraries at creating more open, equitable, affordable, or accessible alternatives to address these shortcomings have been unwelcome by content landlords.

“Librarians sometimes pay hundreds of dollars to circulate one copy of an e-book for a two-year period, a number that could theoretically add up to thousands for one book over decades, according to a 2019 American Library Association report to Congress.”

https://www.protocol.com/ebooks-libraries-libby-overdrive-publishers

What options does this leave libraries with? Looking to the future, as more books become only available for lease as eBooks, I see no clear option which allows libraries to sustainably serve their important roles as reliable, long-term public access repositories of cultural heritage and human knowledge. It used to be the case that a library would purchase a book once and it would serve the public for decades. Instead, now at the end of each year, a library’s eBooks simply vanish unless libraries are able to find enough quarters to re-feed the meter.

Okay, so the future may be bleak, but what about the millions of past books from the 20th century that libraries already do own? Works which are sometimes decades old, are rich with cultural heritage, least likely to be of financial interest to content landlords, and testament to this, are exceedingly unlikely to ever be released as eBooks? Certainly libraries can at least take their physical books, which they’ve already paid for & rightfully own, and make them digitally accessible to at-home learners through secure library best practices, right?

It’s an idea several organizations have explored. As the world’s needs shift to online, groups like @hathitrust, @Google, @internetarchive have spent the better of 10 years digitizing their books to make them increasingly findable and accessibility, especially for approved print-disabled audiences who may have no other way to read pre-digital books (consider that a blind patron can’t just buy a textbook from Amazon — a digitally accessible version isn’t a luxury, it’s a prerequisite to basic usability). Even these gestures seem to have triggered law suits which seem bent on making libraries irrelevant to the digital age: https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2015/10/fair-use-transformative-leval-google-books/411058.

As a recap, over the past ten years, here is the ground the public has lost:

  • Libraries [and the public] have given up our ownership rights.
  • Our libraries have been forced to re-buy the same books each year.
  • Rental prices have gone up, which means libraries get fewer books.
  • The promise of public domain is under threat of disappearing.
  • Libraries are meeting resistance to basic attempts at going digital, remaining relevant, and extending fundamental services to patrons during a critical period when libraries and schools across the globe are closed due to COVID-19.

The Future

I hope the future will be brighter and that we’ll see more equitable opportunities for collaboration between libraries, authors, publishers, and vendors. But in the near-term, the problem appears to be getting worse. In late 2020, at the height of the pandemic, content landlords decided to sue the Internet Archive, a non-profit digital library (disclaimer: I work there), for trying to make their physical library books (which they rightfully own) digitally available to patrons using strict controlled digital lending library practices. What appears to be at stake is what rights libraries will lose in order to continue serving the public in the digital age, as book availability options become increasingly regulated by content landlords.

What can Libraries do about it? When corporate interests try to take an unpopular position like shorting $GME GameStop, the market squeezes back. Libraries can’t do this. First, as non-profits, they don’t have a budget to compete with content landlords. Secondly, they have an obligation to serve their patrons. Imagine if every library stopped buying book subscriptions for a year. This would really hurt readers and less established authors most: That’s not OK.

This means the community needs to take action, to vote, to peacefully and respectfully use their voices to secure a digital future for our library system. One which may ensure a thriving public domain, which protects individual book ownership rights, which preserves our cultural heritage for the long term (not just during a lease period), and which serves and empowers the most vulnerable among us.

I don’t have all the answers. I want badly to see publishers & authors rewarded fairly for their work. I want to see a future for libraries, which have long supported authors. Libraries have lost ground. Now there’s a battle against their very ability to survive & serve public good.

At a minimum, I would like to see this law suit dropped which threatens libraries’ abilities to survive & serve patrons during an increasingly digital age. Especially now with a pandemic forcing schools + libraries across the globe to close doors.

“What libraries do is they buy, preserve, and lend. What this lawsuit is about — is they’re saying the libraries cannot buy, they cannot preserve, and they cannot lend.” — Brewster Kahle, The Nation

I would also like to see a world, even if it’s more expensive, where we have the option to continue purchasing digital books, as opposed to only having subscription options which limit libraries’ abilities to adequately serve their patrons & contribute to furthering the public domain.

If you found this article interesting and want to learn more, consider reading https://mek.fyi/posts/the-uncertain-future-of-american-libraries. For ways to support libraries during this difficult and critical time, I am following http://empoweringlibraries.org and the @library_futures twitter. I am very sensitive to the reality that, just like libraries and at-home learners, authors, bookstores, and many small publishers are struggling through the pandemic. And this ecosystem does not work without them. Buying books using services like https://bookshop.org (of which I have no affiliation) seems like one good way to support our broader book community and I encourage folks to explore and promote these options.

Disclaimer: I love books, believe in the importance of public libraries, & the non-profit work that the @internetarchive is doing enough to work for them, on their +@aaronsw‘s open source @openlibrary book catalog. The thoughts in this thread are strictly my own, not my employer. Also, I am not a lawyer.

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Citizen of the World

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Mek

Citizen of the World

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