Why are authors mad at “libraries” for offering unlimited digital titles?

Kern Carter
Apr 8, 2020 · 3 min read

Because they should be.

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Image by Annie Spratt

Let’s get straight into this.

There’s something called the National Emergency Library. It’s a program launched by Internet Archives (IA), whose stated mission is to “provide universal access to all knowledge,” and allows users to borrow any of the 1.4 million books it has digitized without a waiting list.

Already controversial in its normal state, the launching of The National Emergency Library doubles down on IAs mandate. By doing so, they continue to undermine copyright laws and make it more difficult for authors, many of whom are already in a precarious position financially, to earn royalties on their books.

IA says this latest move was done, “in response to the rolling wave of school and library closures that remain in place to date.” For context, IA is a registered non-profit public charity that acquires its books through donations or by purchase, digitizes them on its own and lends them out to a single user at a time through what’s referred to as Controlled Digital Lending (CDL). They’ve suspended the process of having users wait for access to their books which essentially gives an infinite amount of readers free reign to read any title.

Why this sucks for authors

Because we’re not getting paid. It’s actually that simple. IA isn’t licencing these titles like formal libraries. There aren’t any royalties earned by authors when these titles are borrowed. IA purchases or borrows a title and allows people to read those books for free.

Part of me actually gets it. I can understand why IA believes that they are providing a necessary service by making books more accessible to the world. But if they are doing so by harming the very people who make their existence possible, then they need to reconsider the systems they’ve created.

The other argument being made is that authors should be happy that more people are reading their work. That IA is like a gateway for readers to access lesser-known authors and become true fans who will ultimately purchase their other titles.

My rebuttal to this is let that be our choice. If we choose to give away our books for free, that’s on us. We should get to control when and for how long we take this action. We shouldn’t have third party organizations that we have no contractual obligation with determining the value of our work.

Libraries actually licence books

For even more understanding, libraries also lend out digital books. But this is done after purchasing a digital licence from the publisher. They’re only allowed to lend out as many books as they’ve purchased, so if a title starts doing well, the library will buy more copies of that book.

I put “library” in quotations in the title of this piece because I’m not sure we can categorize IA as a library. It seems to be working in opposition to authors as both the Authors Guild and Association of American Publishers have stated. I’ve also spoken with a few authors and they are also appalled.

What are your thoughts on this?



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Kern Carter

Written by

Writer | Ghostwriter | Author of Thoughts of a Fractured Soul and Beauty Scars |

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