The library, a pirates' lair?

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The Library is also a deposit library, which means that publishers in Vienna and the neighbouring federal states are required by law to send two free copies of everything that they are publishing to the Library. Recently, the colleague in charge of these reference copies told me about the reluctance of some publishers to fulfil their legal duties, the publishers' arguments why they do not want to submit the required copies, and how only threatening with a lawsuit seems to convince some of them.

In some ways, all of this reminded me of the whole Internet piracy debate; I found that the two parties involved here (Library vs. publishers) seem to have pretty much the same opposing arguments as the opponents in the online piracy debate; only in the library case, things seem much more in perspective.

Basically, the publishers who are reluctant to submit free copies to the library claim that doing so will ruin them in the long term. First of all, the cost of the free copies seems to be a big problem, and second, they think that once the copy is in the library, no-one will buy regular copies in bookshops any longer.

From my professional experience, I'd say that the opposite is the case.

First of all, the presence of a book in the library does not mean that it is used so excessively that no more copies are sold. Even though the Library's copy of the last Harry Potter novel has been on loan continuously since it was bought, so far only a total of about 40 people borrowed it. This is pretty much representative of most books in the library, and books that appeal to smaller audiences also have a proportionally smaller number of borrowers in the library. Clearly, the number of loans in the library cannot - and does not - even remotely affect the sales of the book.

Besides, borrowers and buyers are two different groups of people using the book in different ways. Many of the people borrowing the book from the library are doing so because they need only a small bit of information from it; they would never buy the book for this. Others simply cannot afford to buy the book. In both cases, not one sale is lost for the publisher, but as the people using the library copy may spread the word about the usefulness of the book to other people, this may actually lead to additional sales.

Third, it is especially small publishers who publish only a few hundred copies who seem to be afraid of the negative effects of being present in libraries. This is particularly strange. If only 200 copies of a book are printed, the knowledge of the book and the information in the book is completely lost once all of the copies have been sold, as only the publisher, the author and 200 owners know about it. A copy in a library makes sure that all the information in the book remains accessible to a larger public for a longer period; in fact, this may even lead to a renewed interest after a while, possibly even enough to warrant a reprint or a new edition.

It would seem that rather than ruining a publisher, a copy of a book in a library is actually as asset has an added long-term value for the publisher (and, of course, the reader) as it represents an access to potential customers as well as a long-term presence in the information pool. Rather than a pirates' lair that is handing out free copies to everyone, the library is actually an information market; the price to enter it may be the occasional free copy, but the long-term benefits should well compensate for that.

Recent attempts to curtail libraries' rights by imposing stricter copyright restrictions are clearly an expression of corporate greed, but certainly not in the interest of publishers and authors.

2 Comments

I find this very interesting, Horst, and I agree with all the points you've made, but one thing is not clear to me. To how many libraries are publishers required to send the two free copies? Is it just to the University of Vienna Library, all university libraries, or other libraries also?

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