Bills aim to give R.I. public libraries a break from high cost of e-books 

THE COSTLINESS of e-books and audiobooks – with limits driven largely by book publishers’ concerns over revenue, copyright and author compensation – inspired the state’s libraries to put their weight behind a pair of bills in the R.I. General Assembly. The bills would leverage state contract law to give public libraries more control over their negotiations with e-book suppliers. / PBN FILE PHOTO/NICOLE DOTZENROD

A lot of Rhode Islanders want to read Kristin Hannah’s latest novel, “The Women.” 

The e-book version of Hannah’s Vietnam War narrative had 837 holds across the state’s libraries as of April 12. Nearly a week later, on Thursday, April 18, that number had risen to 900, according to the statewide library catalog. At least four physical copies were still available.   

Libraries don’t pay what consumers do for e-books – they may pay as much as nine times more, according to the Rhode Island Library Association. They’re also not technically buying books: Libraries purchase licenses to e-books, not the e-books themselves, and licenses expire. Libraries essentially lease books for a set number of checkouts or duration of time, usually one to two years. 

“If we purchased enough book licenses to satisfy even half of the 800 holds, it would cost us $24,000,” said Julie Holden, assistant library director at Cranston Public Library. “For one book. It’s a book that’s going to disappear in two years.” 

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The costliness of e-books and audiobooks – with limits driven largely by book publishers’ concerns over revenue, copyright and author compensation – inspired the state’s libraries to put their weight behind a pair of bills in the General Assembly: H7508 in the House, led by Newport Democratic Rep. Lauren Carson, and S2514 in the Senate, led by Democratic Sen. Victoria Gu of Westerly. The bills would leverage state contract law to give public libraries more control over their negotiations with e-book suppliers. 

“If a bridge contractor is building a bridge in Rhode Island to replace the Washington Bridge, they have to build the bridge to the specifications of the state,” Holden said. “So that’s what this is saying: If you’d like to sell e-books to libraries in Rhode Island using state money, these are our terms. If the bills pass, and the publishers decide they’re not going to sell e-books to libraries anymore, then we’ll see what happens.” 

Some of the protections offered by the bills include allowing libraries to determine loan periods and to buy e-books at prices closer to consumer rates. Licensing models which require libraries to pay a fee for each checkout would be eliminated, and libraries would also be able to disclose their license agreements to other libraries.  

Massachusetts, Connecticut, Vermont, New Hampshire, Tennessee, Iowa, Hawaii and New York all have similar legislation in process this year. Other states have seen support from lawmakers but opposition from the judicial or executive branches. After Maryland’s General Assembly unanimously passed a bill to protect libraries’ purchasing powers in 2022, the U.S. District Court in Maryland blocked the law on the basis of it being unconstitutional – an opinion informed by Association of American Publishers’ legal battle to prevent the law’s enactment, Publishers Weekly reported. In December 2021, New York Gov. Kathy Hochul vetoed a similar bill.  

Holden, who also chairs Rhode Island Library Association’s membership committee, said e-books are a towering expense in the state’s already-squished library budgets. Public libraries are essentially paying for items they don’t own. The two major e-book platforms are OverDrive and Hoopla – the former allows libraries to purchase books for a set amount of time, while the latter makes libraries pay per-checkout. What’s consistent to both models is a reliance on licensing.  

“Normally a state or municipality would never spend money on something that’s going to disappear. It’s not a good investment. It’s not a good use of taxpayer money,” Holden said.  

Around a decade ago, e-book purchases were comparable to hardcover prices, Holden noted. That changed once publisher HarperCollins moved to a licensing model that limited books to 26 checkouts.  

“Overall, the prices have risen, and the terms have been restricted,” Holden said. “So now we’re spending money on disappearing products.” 

That’s totally different from the consumer space: Look at Amazon’s storefront for e-books and you’ll find books under $1 or books at 80% off. Audiobooks, which Holden called “a whole other beast,” also run up costs and libraries pay far more for them than a consumer does. A recent Stephen King audiobook, Holden said, was around $130.  

Both time-based and checkout-based licensing have drawbacks, Holden said. With the former, the clock starts running once a book is purchased, meaning libraries are paying for hours, days or even weeks where the book is not being read by library patrons.  

The checkout model, meanwhile, means people sometimes have to fight over the limited supply of a book. Holden said Cranston Public Library had to cap its Hoopla expenditures to $1,000 monthly, which translates to roughly $33 a day based on each checkout costing the library around $2 or $3. Most days, the checkouts are already full by 6 a.m., because people are putting in their holds at midnight. 

“We’ve had a lot of people emailing us complaining, calling us begging us to fund this further, so that all the books aren’t gone at midnight,” Holden said. “So now our patrons are staying up until midnight, so they can check out the day’s quota.” 

Similar e-book bills have emerged several times in Rhode Island’s General Assembly – in 2020, 2021, 2022, and 2023. The Senate Committee on Education did recommend passage of Sen. Hanna Gallo’s 2022 version of the bill, but the legislation has not progressed much otherwise. 

Rhode Island Current reached out to two of the major e-book retailers about the proposed legislation. 

“We are not prepared to comment at this time,” said David Burleigh, a director of corporate outreach for Overdrive. 

Hoopla did not return multiple requests for comment. 

Larry Berman and Greg Paré – spokespeople for the Rhode Island House and Senate, respectively – said in a joint statement via email: “Public hearings have been held on both bills in the respective House and Senate committees. Leadership is reviewing the testimony as the bills travel through the normal legislative process.” 

While libraries’ budget concerns over e-books is a more recent trend, book publishers have worried about their own finances since 1908, when the First Sale Doctrine emerged. This feature of U.S. copyright law allows the original purchaser of a book to resell their copy. That’s one reason publishers fretted when the secondhand book market saw exponential growth thanks to Amazon, and it contributes to publishers’ more modern preference for licensing over traditional sales, according to a 2023 report from the Engelberg Center on Innovation Law and Policy. 

Brick and mortar libraries must play by the rules of copyright. More harmful to publishers’ bottom lines are shadow libraries – online repositories of pirated e-books and PDFs that are virtually limitless in size. After years of battles over audiovisual content like pirated movies and music, federal attention on illicit libraries has intensified in recent years. A 2023 report on counterfeiting and piracy by the Office of the United States Trade Representative noted that Libgen, one of the more infamous and popular book pirates, has seen legal action from 11 countries – including the United States, who seized a number of web domains associated with the site in 2022.  

The Dublin, Ohio-based OCLC – which maintains WorldCat, the largest library catalog with data aggregated from institutions worldwide  – also filed a complaint against one of these shadow libraries in Ohio U.S. District Court in February. 

None of this has stopped Libgen from being mirrored, or copied to different servers. One Libgen mirror and search engine boasted a collection of 31,645,836 books as of this writing.  

Rhode Island’s public libraries, meanwhile, can’t even obtain a digital copy of E.B. White’s “Charlotte’s Web,” a children’s classic that was published 72 years ago. 

“We can’t purchase it,” Holden said. “We don’t know why. It’s just not available for libraries…The libraries cannot purchase it.”    

The Kindle version is currently available on Amazon for $5.99. 

Alexander Castro is a reporter for the Rhode Island Current.

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