The Washington Post tech columnist Geoffrey Fowler recently had a very interesting article about how Amazon won’t allow the ebooks it publishes to be lent out from libraries. As someone who regularly borrows ebooks from my local libraries, I find this disappointing — especially since, as Fowler notes, Amazon really is the company that made ebooks popular. But, when it comes to libraries, Amazon won’t let libraries lend those ebooks out:
When authors sign up with a publisher, it decides how to distribute their work. With other big publishers, selling e-books and audiobooks to libraries is part of the mix — that’s why you’re able to digitally check out bestsellers like Barack Obama’s “A Promised Land.” Amazon is the only big publisher that flat-out blocks library digital collections. Search your local library’s website, and you won’t find recent e-books by Amazon authors Kaling, Dean Koontz or Dr. Ruth Westheimer. Nor will you find downloadable audiobooks for Trevor Noah’s “Born a Crime,” Andy Weir’s “The Martian” and Michael Pollan’s “Caffeine.”
I’ve seen a lot of people responding to this article with anger towards Amazon, which is understandable. I do hope Amazon changes this policy. But there’s a much bigger culprit here: our broken copyright laws. In the physical world, this kind of thing isn’t a problem. If a library wants to lend out a book, it doesn’t need the publisher’s permission. It can just buy a copy and start lending it out. Fowler’s correct that a publisher does get to decide how it wants to distribute a work, but with physical books, there’s the important first sale doctrine, which lets anyone who buys a book go on and resell it. And that meant that in the past, libraries have never needed “permission” to lend out a book. They just needed to buy it.
Unfortunately, courts seem to take a dim view of the first sale doctrine when it comes to digital goods.