Will public libraries in Europe ever be able to lend out e-books to their patrons on their own terms? That seems a strange question, for in several countries lending e-books is already happening. Library patrons will wonder why they shouldn’t be able to borrow e-books in the first place, just like they are used to borrowing printed books. However, from a legal point of view a paper book and an e-book are different things. To cut a long legal story short, whereas lending out paper books is covered by a lending right exception in copyright law in most European countries, lending out e-books is not.
While some legal scholars still see possibilities for e-book lending within existing copyright law, most will say that the library exception to copyright law does not extend to digital content, including e-books. EBLIDA, the European Bureau of Library, Information and Documentation Associations, holds this view, as does IFLA, the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions. In the Netherlands, the ministry of Education, Culture and Science commissioned a study on the matter in the preparation stage of a new public library law.
The conclusion of that study (report with summary in English here, blog post in English here is straightforward: ‘neither current Dutch copyright law nor the EU legal framework seems to leave room for e-lending without right holder permission. Of course, this does not mean that libraries cannot lend e-books, merely that this practice is not covered by a copyright exception at the moment and therefore requires agreements with authors and other right holders.’ (quote from the blog post by Kelly Breemen and Vicky Breemen of the Institute for Information Law (IvIR) at the University of Amsterdam).
Public libraries currently have no other option than to carefully manoeuver and try to make a deal which leaves a maximum of their principles standing.
The absence of a copyright exception therefore implies that public libraries and their umbrella associations must negotiate with right holders, usually publishers, the terms under which e-books and other digital content can be lent out to patrons.
Now let’s turn back to the question at the outset of this post: I added the words on their own terms because here is where things start to hurt. It is not that public libraries cannot reach agreements with right holders. The cases of Germany, the USA, Canada, Norway and (in pilot projects) the Netherlands and Flanders show that this is possible. What is at stake is the conditions under which it becomes possible. Library organisations almost always have to give up on some of the principles they formulated before entering the negotiations. Both IFLA and EBLIDA formulated principles that could guide their member organisations in positioning themselves. One of the more essential demands is that they have the right to choose themselves, from all titles that have been made available by publishers, which ones they will obtain for e-lending.
But as could be expected, in a situation without a copyright exception inscribed in the law, one is not in a position to put demands on the table and expect to get what one desires. It is the right holder side dictating what is possible and what is not, since the law grants them full control over what happens with ‘their’ content. Public libraries currently have no other option than to carefully manoeuver and try to make a deal which leaves a maximum of their principles standing. It comes as no surprise that the negotiation results are varying widely between countries.
This state of affairs leaves many in the public library world and in the responsible ministries worried. On 13-14 May 2013 I was invited to join and report on a meeting in Milan on e-books in public libraries and report on the meeting’s outcomes. A working group of NAPLE (National Authorities on Public Libraries in Europe) discussed the current state of negotiations between public library organisations and publishers and other rights holders. Five cases were presented and discussed: Flanders, the Netherlands, Denmark, Slovenia and Germany/the German-speaking part of Switzerland.
Even in this small ‘sample’, a great variety of options can be observed. In the scheme below, the NAPLE working group’s chairman, Jan Braeckman (director of Bibnet Flanders) and I have tried to summarize these options in a dozen dimensions. The table, which is available for download under CC-BY-SA, might be helpful for library organisations in preparing negotiation strategies. It might also aid in operationalizing umbrella organisations’ principles (‘this we recommend, that we would discourage’) before entering negotiations with right holders.
The Milano meeting made it clear that public libraries and their umbrellas are growing increasingly uneasy with the absence of legal provisions for e-lending. EBLIDA will start to campaign in the EU and in the member countries for the legal ‘right to buy and lend e-books at reasonable conditions’, now their attempt at reaching a memorandum of understanding with the Federation of European Publishers (FEP/FEE). A strong plea was made to continue on two paths simultaneously: in the long term, obtain the legal right to select and lend out books, and in the short term work out viable deals with publishers. This approach will put some more pressure on right holders to meet the libraries’ reasonable demands, provided that ‘Europe’ will actually start to make moves towards legally enabling e-lending.
For more information and guidance, the list of documents below (some of which were already cited above) from various sources may also come in handy. If you have other documents to add, please post them below or give me a hint.
ALA (American Library Association)
– E-books Business Models for Public Libraries
Dbv (Deutscher Bibliotheksverband e.V.)
– Positionspaper: Gleichstellung von gedruckten Büchern und E-books
OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development)
– E-books: Developments and Policy Considerations
IvIR (Institute for Information Law, University of Amsterdam)
– Can e-lending land itself a spot under the public lending right?
– Online uitlenen van e-books [with summary in English] (SEO/IvIR)
E-books in European public libraries: lending rights and business models is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.