Wednesday, December 1, 2021

After COVID boom, ebook aggregators face licensing questions from Congress

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A Democratic senator launched an investigation into how publishers license ebooks to libraries on Thursday, calling on nine major ebook aggregators to provide details on the licensing agreements they make with libraries.

Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR), along with Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-CA), sent letters demanding that aggregators like Overdrive and EBSCO provide them with examples of standard ebook licensing agreements for every major publisher they work with, including Penguin Random House and Simon & Schuster.

“Many libraries face financial and practical challenges in making e-books available to their patrons, which jeopardizes their ability to fulfill their mission,” the lawmakers wrote. “It is our understanding that these difficulties arise because e-books are typically offered under more expensive and limited licensing agreements, unlike print books that libraries can typically purchase, own, and lend on their own terms.”

In September, Wyden and Eshoo first questioned publishers over the terms they set for ebook licensing. The COVID-19 pandemic forced many public libraries to shut down in-person service, and people began using online services like Overdrive’s Libby app to borrow digital books in lieu of physical copies. “Ensuring that libraries can offer an array of resources, including e-books, is essential to promoting equity in education and access to information,” the lawmakers wrote to Penguin Random House earlier this year.

Major publishers have sued organizations in the past over copyright violations for offering free copies of ebooks. In June 2020, Hachette, Penguin Random House, Wiley, and HarperCollins filed suit against the Internet Archive for copyright violations related to the Open Library project. The project launched in 2006 and allowed users to borrow ebooks scanned from physical copies of books.

In Thursday’s letters, the lawmakers highlighted how digital versions of books can be more accessible to people with disabilities. “In recent years, e-books have been a growing part of library catalogs. Not only do many library users prefer to borrow e-books, but digital options can provide greater accessibility for Americans who have disabilities, face mobility challenges, or live in remote areas,” they said.

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