EBLIDA-Campaign “The right to e-read” – E-Books in Libraries

iPad on an empty bookshelf
iPad on an empty bookshelf | Photo (detail): ©Thomas Meyer / Ostkreuz

Because the legal basis of the library system is not adapted to the digital world, publishers may refuse licenses to libraries for e-books. A Europe-wide campaign is making people aware of this deplorable state of affairs.

What do books such as And the Mountains Echoed (Traumsammler) by Khaled Hosseini, F by Daniel Kehlmann and Tabu (i.e., Taboo) by Ferdinand von Schirach have in common? They are all currently on the bestseller list of the magazine Der Spiegel – and none can be checked out in the form of an e-book in a public library in Germany. Had librarians themselves made the decision not to stock the mentioned books as e-books, this would be odd but hardly worth a campaign. But librarians have been denied the freedom to choose which e-books they may offer library users – simply because publishers do not license these e-books to libraries.

Curtailment of freedom of information

The European library association EBLIDA (European Bureau of Library, Information and Documentation Associations) has now launched the large-scale campaign “The right to e-read” to make the public aware of this deplorable state of affairs. “We are demanding for all European citizens the right to full and free access to electronic information in libraries”, says EBLIDA President Klaus-Peter Böttger. “This is about safeguarding the interests of libraries in the digital world. It isn’t acceptable that library users are excluded from part of the range of commercial publications.”

The campaign will culminate on World Book and Copyright Day: on 23 April 2014 there will be press conferences in all the 28 member states of the European Union on this issue. In addition, a postcard campaign is intended to make clear to members of the European parliament and national governments the urgent need for legal action.

Equal rights for the analog and digital worlds

Readers today expect most current books to be available as e-books. Looked at from the outside, books and e-books seem to differ only in form. But legally it makes a huge difference whether you buy a book or an e-book. The book becomes a possession of the buyer; in the case of an e-book, he acquires only the license to access it.

German copyright law stipulates that libraries may acquire and lend books. For this the federal and state governments pay a libraries royalty, an agreed remuneration for authors and other rights holders, to VG Wort. But digital media such as e-books are not included in this regulation. Public libraries thus have no legal right to lend e-books. The rights holders are free to decide whether and under what conditions to permit downloads from library websites.

In principle this means that each library must negotiate a license for each e-book. In practice the vast majority of German public libraries handle their electronic loans through divibib GmbH or ciando GmbH. These service providers conduct license negotiations with publishers – and again and again bang their heads against a brick wall. “Publishers that refuse licenses accuse libraries of cannibalizing the market. In addition, they allege that content on our websites wouldn’t be secure against illegal downloads and piracy”, says Böttger, reporting of his discussions with publishers associations.

Extension of the copyright law

“In our view there’s no way round the extension of the copyright law in the long run. We need a legal framework for all Europe for how libraries can treat digital media. This applies not only to e-books, but also to all future forms of publication”, says Böttger, who is also Director of the Essen Public Library. The European legislative process, however, is usually lengthy. Böttger estimates reforms will take four to six years.

At the national level, on the other hand, the just negotiated coalition agreement between the CDU, CSU and SPD, “Shaping Germany’s Future”, warrants a degree of hope. It states: “We want to adapt copyright law to the needs and challenges of the digital age”, and “We shall examine whether public libraries should be given the legal right to license electronic books”.

Until there is a legal clarification of the framework, librarians will continue to wrestle with publishers associations over a reasonable licensing model. “We want to guarantee to all citizens unhindered access to media in both electronic and printed form”, emphasizes Böttger. “Including the about 40 per cent of books on the current bestseller list that we still can’t offer as e-books today.”