"A danger to democracy itself": Authors fight back against limiting libraries' digital rights

A massive letter protests anti-library lawsuits by publishing groups and asserts the right to e-book access

By Alison Stine

Staff Writer

Published September 29, 2022 4:32PM (EDT)

Books on shelves in the stacks at the Reading Public Library. (Ben Hasty/MediaNews Group/Reading Eagle via Getty Images)
Books on shelves in the stacks at the Reading Public Library. (Ben Hasty/MediaNews Group/Reading Eagle via Getty Images)

Neil Gaiman. Chuck Wendig. Hanif Abdurraqib. Eula Biss. 

These are but a handful of the writers who have signed their names to an open letter released Thursday by a nonprofit group concerned with digital rights issues, Fight for the Future. The letter, titled "Authors for Libraries," expresses disheartenment about "the recent attacks against libraries being made in our name by trade associations such as the Association of American Publishers and the Publishers Association."

The letter calls for libraries to be able to "permanently own and preserve books, and to purchase these permanent copies on reasonable terms, regardless of format." That seems like a typical right of libraries, but the books in question are specifically e-books. Currently, libraries must pay to rent, not own, e-books from publishers, and the prices, according to the letter, "are often likened to extortion." This, despite e-books often being cheaper to manufacture than print books and more accessible

Recent lawsuits, including one against the Internet Archive, seek to restrict e-books in libraries and to limit the lending of scanned material in general. The letter condemns this "undermining of libraries" and asserts that only "the wealthiest and most privileged authors and corporations" see financial benefits from going against libraries. "This behavior is utterly opposed to the interests of authors as a whole," the letter reads.

Multiple authors included statements in the letter, such as David Weinberger, who says, "Publishers trying to limit the reach of libraries are hastening the death of literacy," while Mirta Wake addresses writers in her statement: "Retracting the ability to read from the poor will not net you more sales, it will simply limit the reach that your work could have."

The letter comes at a time when libraries and books in general are under attack. Books by queer writers and writers of color have been banned in school libraries and have become the subject of heated lawsuits. The letter addresses some of the recent lawsuits against libraries as well as "smear campaigns" leveled against those who work there, which have falsely painted librarians as "'mouthpieces' for Big Tech."

Concerned about the reduction of libraries' rights nationwide, the letter reads, "We fear a future where libraries are reduced to a sort of Netflix or Spotify for books from which publishers demand exorbitant licensing fees in perpetuity while unaccountable vendors force the spread of disinformation and hate for profit."

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In his statement attached to the letter, the poet Philip Metres writes, "The public library, to me, is the closest thing to a church for everyone – a place where people seek stories and answers to every question under the sun. Those who threaten that sacred space, who seek to reduce access to that temple of learning and exploration, are a danger to democracy itself."


By Alison Stine

Alison Stine is a former staff writer at Salon. She is the author of the novels "Trashlands" and "Road Out of Winter," winner of the 2021 Philip K. Dick Award. A recipient of an Individual Artist Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), she has written for The New York Times, The Guardian, and others.

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