By American Library Association
Current practices by content publishers and distributors in digital markets limit libraries’ ability to deliver core services, according to a new report publicly released today by the American Library Association (ALA). Submitted in response to an inquiry from the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on the Judiciary Subcommittee on Antitrust, Commercial and Administrative Law, ALA’s report underscores practices by companies like Amazon and Macmillan Publishers that threaten Americans’ right to read what and how they choose and imperil other fundamental First Amendment freedoms. The report urges lawmakers to curb anti-competitive practices of digital market actors.
“By outright denying or delaying library access to digital content, dominant actors in digital markets endanger America’s competitiveness and our nation’s cultural heritage,” said ALA President Wanda Brown. “Everyone who reads, writes, performs, or sells creative works is harmed when libraries are unable to purchase and deliver content for all in our communities.”
“ALA does not take this issue lightly,” said Alan Inouye, ALA senior director of public policy and government relations. “When Amazon — the world’s fifth largest publisher of ebooks — refuses to sell to libraries, or when a Big 5 publisher like Macmillan places an eight-week embargo on e-book sales to America’s libraries, we believe it is time to take legislative action.”
The report addresses publishers’ abusive pricing and restrictive licensing terms for libraries. Over the past 10 years, libraries have spent more than $40 billion acquiring e-books as well as streamed music and audiovisual content from publishers. For popular e-book titles, libraries pay up to five times the price an individual consumer pays and, unlike the individual, libraries typically have access to an e-book title for only two years.
Restrictive license terms for streamed music and audiovisual content present libraries with similar access challenges. Streaming licenses are typically constrained to personal use and do not permit library lending or preservation.
“In 100 years, Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, Spotify, and other companies distributing streamed content may be out of business or no longer maintaining their older works,” the report states. “The only way to ensure the availability of this content to future generations of researchers, students, and artists is for libraries to have the right to preserve it.”
The report also notes the market for libraries that purchase academic and research content is particularly dismal. Like many other publications, scholarly journals essential for research have largely transitioned to digital formats over the past 25 years. At the same time, the market for scholarly journals has seen tremendous consolidation. In the college textbook market, three companies — Pearson, Cengage, and McGraw-Hill — account for 85 percent of the industry. Furthermore, despite the cost improvements digital technology affords, textbook prices have risen three times the rate of inflation over the past two decades. Plans to merge Cengage and McGraw-Hill Education will create even further industry concentration, says ALA.
The report’s release comes on the heels of ALA’s #eBooksForAll campaign in protest of Macmillan Publishers’ plan to restrict sales to libraries. Beginning November 1, 2019, libraries of all sizes will be
limited to purchasing one copy of a newly published e-book title and must wait eight weeks to buy additional copies. The embargo has outraged library advocates across North America, generating local and national media coverage.
“Equitable access to information and creative works is central to the mission of libraries and essential for our nation’s readers and learners,” said Brown. “Macmillan’s library e-book embargo is just the most recent attack on digital inclusion.”
As for ALA’s next steps, Inouye stated, “Beginning next week, ALA and our members in targeted congressional districts will engage legislators on the substance of our report. When librarians and community leaders tell Antitrust Subcommittee members how unfair digital market practices impact their constituents, Congress will listen.
“ALA will continue to pursue legislative, advocacy, and legal options to ensure everyone in our communities has access to the creative content for which libraries already pay a very high price. We will not stand down.”