Libraries vs. File Sharing Sites

One of the arguments that comes up fairly regularly in discussions of e-book piracy and illegal file-sharing is that it’s the same thing libraries are doing.  If you hate piracy, obviously you must be against libraries.  If you support your local library, then how can you hate file-sharing sites for doing the exact same thing?

This argument falls apart for a number of reasons.

  1. Libraries lend books.  You borrow it, and then you return it.  (Unless you’re George Washington.)
  2. Libraries (mostly) lend out physical books.  A physical book can only be lent out to one person at a time, meaning there’s a built-in limit.  If demand is high, the library will purchase more books, both to meet demand and to replace worn-out or stolen copies.  Whereas there’s no limit to the number of times a single file can be passed along.
  3. Libraries buy a lot of books.  Because each library serves a limited geographic area, libraries often end up purchasing hundreds or even thousands of copies of a book nationwide.  File-sharing sites, not so much.
  4. In some countries (sadly, not the U.S.), the library system tracks the number of times a particular author’s work is checked out.  Each year, the author receives a check based on the circulation of his/her books.  I’ve yet to find the file-sharing site that tries to pay the author.  (Often it’s the opposite, and the site includes pleas for donations while at the same time complaining about “greedy” publishers and authors.)
  5. Libraries work with and support authors.  I’ve done a number of programs with libraries here in Michigan, speaking about writing, my books, and so on.  Often (not always) I’m paid for my time, in addition to being given the chance to sell books.

It’s true that both libraries and file-sharing sites provide free access to books.  I can’t argue that point.  But then, if the only thing that mattered was free books, then I could just hijack an warehouse, and voila — it’s exactly the same as going to the library, right?

Things are getting messier thanks to e-books, and libraries are working to figure out how to do e-book lending.  But once again, there’s a difference: libraries are working to find a legal way, one which continues to treat authors, publishers, and readers fairly.

That list above is just off the top of my head.  I’m sure there are a number of other differences, and I’d love to hear what else people can come up with.

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  1. 1. Conrad Rader

    Libraries have folded the ebook problem in with audiobooks mp3s, and our other electronic resources. Or at least my library has. The biggest barrier to ebooks is providing a platform to read them. The pricing of platforms is still geared to a consumer market, and the libraries have to balance demand with the cost of implementing a service that will get used. Out of a user population of 25,000 I have had maybe 5 requests for ebook services over the past year. On our annual service survey, there are other services with more requests. Ebooks in libraries are being done, but there is still a long way to go before it is commonly available to library patrons.

  2. 2. Jim C. Hines

    Thanks, Conrad — that’s interesting. I’ve little doubt that we’ll get there eventually, but I also get the sense that, at least right now, the perception of demand still outpaces the actual demand. (Insert the standard disclaimers here that I could be wrong, and even if I’m not the situation could be very different a few years down the line.)

  3. 3. Stephen Watkins

    Hmm. A very interesting topic. I’ll be interested to see how libraries handle the ebook question in the coming months and years. Certainly I would think that libraries lending out ebooks would be a huge driver for ebook makers (hey, a FREE and LEGAL source of ebooks, that just makes your reader all the more valuable). But it seems like (a) it will be extra challenging as long as the format for ebooks remains so fragmented and (b) what’s to stop a freely and legally lent ebook from ending up on a fil-sharing site?

    Obviously, though, the latter question is the one that has stalled and stumped companies in all the various media – whether music or film or books. And at this point it’s pretty clear the DRM is a grade-A FAIL on that front. WRT to libraries… would there be some way to tag every lent copy of an ebook so that if the copy ends up on a file-sharing site it can be traced back to the lendee (…although, of course, the truly determined hacker can usually find and strip such tagging). Would that even be advisable?

    Also, how do you limit the amount of time an ebook is available to a lendee? And, since there is little that limits a library’s capacity to lend a nearly infinite number of e-copies of the book, how will libraries ensure that authors are justly compensated for books that are lent a disproportionately large number of times (since they wouldn’t have to buy another physical copy of the book to lend it out to another library patron)?

    It makes me wonder: is the future of book distribution a system where e-books are essentially free through libraries – or perhaps through some sort of pay-for-membership mechanism – and authors are compensated from some general or public pool of funds based on the frequency their work is requested…? (If only library budgets in the real world weren’t so tight that this model is basically DOA, of course.)

  4. 4. Jon Hansen

    I can say that, at our library, our ebook circulation has now passed our hard copy circulation by a considerable margin. The vast majority of our electronic book collection is from NetLibrary (we have collections with other vendors). The books there fall into two categories: read online only and download. The downloaded versions have the Adobe DRM baked in, so you can’t pass ‘em around from computer to computer. The PDFs also stop working after 28 days, and of course, only one person at a time.

  5. 5. Jim C. Hines

    @Jon – Thank you! Very cool to hear what you’re doing. (And I hadn’t been aware of NetLibrary — thanks!) Following up in part on Stephen’s comments, do you find the DRM issue to be a problem for the users?

  6. 6. Jon Hansen

    Eh, most of the complaints we get revolve around the fact that you can only print one page at a time in the online versions (not the case in the downloaded version) and why why why whyyyy can’t more than one person checkout a book at a time?

    Also, you do need to setup Adobe Digital Editions to read the downloaded books, and it’s not always that clear that it requires that. But otherwise, no. It’s a lot like buying books for your Kindle/iPad/Nook/Kobo/other eReader: see it, want it, get it, got it.

  7. 7. Sara M. Harvey

    Here in Nashville, they require you to download a free software platform to your computer. Then, through the library’s website in conjunction with that platform, I can check out e-books or audiobooks for a specified amount of time- one to three weeks.
    After such time, the software shuts off access to me on my computer and deletes the file. I can however, transfer the files to my iPod (the audiofiles anyway, I have never gotten an ebook from the library, only audiobooks). The audiobooks files can live there forever, BUT I can never share them with anyone since iPods don’t allow anyone to copy off of their hardware. Were I to bring the audiobooks onto my computer, they’d be frozen and deleted.
    I am not sure about the DRM on the files, but I know the software platform allows a certain number of transfers to outside devices and it varies by book, but in general you are allowed 2-6 transfers in case of lost connection or bad copy. With iPods, you can only sync your iPod to your machine, so I couldn’t sync my iPod to my husband’s computer for example. The files are never actually saved to your hard drive, they remain on the software’s closed system so you cannot access or copy them to your own computer.
    But I like this system, I feel it is fair and allows me as a library patron to access electronic files but puts reasonable limits on file access to curtail pirating.

  8. 8. Sean P. Fodera

    Our local public library offers ebook borrowing in Adobe EPUB, Adobe PDF and Mobipocket formats. The system is simple to use, and the lending periods are flexible. You can have an ebook out for the library’s default period, your own default period, or a custom time period.

    I have only recently discovered this system, so I don’t have much personal experience with books expiring. I tend to get through them before that happens, so I don’t know exactly what happens to them once they expire.

  9. 9. Stephen Watkins

    Interesting to see that there are already technological solutions to some of the questions I was musing in my comment above… I’m behind the curve!

  10. 10. Tammy

    I think #3 is the key–while a library has the opportunity to lend to, say, a thousand users who are not paying for a book (I’m a librarian–stuff seldom circulates that well), libraries actually do purchase for, say, $30, that book that 1000 people read.

    It sounds like a crappy statistic until you realize there are over 120,000 libraries in the United States. Sure, not every library will purchase a book, but if 1,000, or 10,000 do, that’s $30,000 to $300,000 in additional book sales that would have not been purchased, if everyone just torrented the book.

    Would it have been better for book sales if those 1000 patrons had purchased the book? Yes and no. SOME of those 1000 patrons at that one library that purchased the book for $30 would have purchased it. However, some would not. Some could not afford it. Some would have weighed the cost versus trying a book by an author they had never read before, and would have saved their money. Some would have found a friend to borrow it from.

    BUT, for every person who takes a chance on a book by an author they’ve never read, or in a genre or subject-area they’re unfamiliar with, and every person who develops a love for reading (or increases their reading comfort-level) thanks to the “free” library books they can obtain, the book industry has created a potential purchaser.

    I came from an underprivileged upbringing. There were a few books in the house, but the library was my primary source of new reading material. I don’t think I’d have a masters degree today without the love of learning instilled in me by my library. I’d also not be a confident reader. I’d also not walk into book stores for one thing and come out $120 lighter on a regular basis.

    I’ve also dealt with patrons, especially young adult patrons who tell me to cancel their hold on a book because the wait was too long, so they went out and purchased a book.

    Or patrons who took a chance on an author and got hooked, and either asked us to purchase more of an author’s books, or were so touched by a story that they purchased a copy for themselves of a book they’d just read for free in the library.

    Why does the library get to lend a book or a DVD an infinite number of times? First sale rights. I can lend or give any of my books to any of my friends. I can sell it for $2 at a garage sale because I bought the book. Your library can too.

    Digital copies do not include those same kind of rights. You can make backup copies for yourself, and there are other rights included, but you can’t “lend” it to 1000 of your closest friends tonight on bittorrent.

    Namely because your 1000 closest friends will in turn lend to 1000 of their closest friends, etc. until even Pablo the Goat Herder in the hills of the Andes has a copy of your book. SCALE is the difference. A library can only lend a book to one person at a time. Even if they have 10 copies, they can only be read by one human being at a time. There’s a built-in time delay on everyone in the world getting hold of that book, and so fewer people will read that physical copy, over the life of the book, than if, say, you pirate that same book/movie/whatever.

    Libraries also deal with performance rights issues. We buy special licenses in order to show All Quiet on the Western Front (not the “newer” one with the guy from The Waltons, the really old one that’s in, like, French or something), to 12 old ladies who just re-read the book for their book club. And we pay a pretty penny to have a license to show things from an approved list of videos.

    Being a library is not some magical cart blanch to do whatever you feel like with the materials you’ve purchased. If we’re short a copy of All Quiet… for a reading group, we can’t just photocopy it. We have to purchase another copy, or borrow it from another library. So, even if Joe Of The Internet really WAS a “lending library” in Pirate Bay form, he’d STILL be governed by the same distribution rules that libraries are. This means that he’d not be able to make electronic copies for simultaneous distribution/viewing, because, in a way, that’s the same issue libraries run into with viewing licenses. And I’m not sure Joe Of The Internet has/wants to pay as much as his local public library for the privilege of distributing the last episode of Lost to 1000 of his closest friends in Hungary, Indonesia and Japan.

    THAT SAID, I do believe there should be more wiggle-room in the rules and laws for more free distribution of electronic material. Watching a random episode of Doctor Who obtained through elicit means can spark a viewer to go back and purchase the last four seasons on DVD, or to urge all of their friends to watch it when it *finally* airs on American TV.

    I would probably purchase more music if I had more opportunity to “try before I buy,” simply because the music industry has been turning out so many duds lately. I *do* utilize legal means of watching things that my DVR “decided” to not record, or that I did not know about until half way through a season and want to catch up on, etc. Services like Hulu and Netflix streaming have been invaluable for “discovering” new programming or remembering old favorites which are conveniently on DVD if they are being shown on Hulu.

    I think online availability/sharing has as much potential for doing great things for people who utilize it, the your public library does. Will everybody who utilizes such a service turn into a purchaser? No. Not everyone who uses the library becomes a purchaser. Many would never purchase at ALL due to lack of funds, or general issues with paying for material.

    That’s true for digital media as well, I feel. The people who pay were probably going to pay no matter WHAT the availability…IF they knew about your material. People who refuse to pay for things were never going to pay. There’re probably some people who fall in the middle there, but again, they’d have to know about the “stuff” in question and be enthusiastic about it before they make the decision to part with money for it.

    Creators and distributors need money. It’s a resource like paint or paper or stone to sculpt with. Without it, there won’t be more “stuff” for us to consume. HOW creators get that money and what will net them the most of it in the long run can be up for debate.

    It would be nice to see if there was a solution that was a little more fair and forward-thinking for everyone. However, I don’t think any solution will be come to for ANYONE if we don’t look at the subject clearly. The Pirate Bay is NOT your local library, and it’s silly to pretend otherwise.

    Sorry! !! it’s a touchy subject here in Library Land, especially when ebook pubs want to charge us PER PATRON CHECKOUT (uhh yeah, we’ll just buy the $300 paper copy–we’ll see a bigger return on investment quicker, thanks!)! I want stuff, you want money, and if only the transaction were that simple :)

  11. 11. Kristin Laughtin

    Another library worker chiming in here, although I see most of the questions about how e-books are handled have already been answered by others. It’s an evolving process, and libraries are still trying to negotiate with vendors on issues such as number of users, etc., but what the other commenters have already said is on the mark. Many ebooks are readable on the net, although some require a download, and those ones are protected so they can’t be sent to anyone else, printed off in large chunks (easily), etc.

    why why why whyyyy can’t more than one person checkout a book at a time?
    Some of the major e-book distributors allow for multiple simultaneous users or even unlimited users, but they are a lot more costly. My library only buys them if we expect an entire class to use the book at once, for example, and at least one of our vendors allows us to upgrade from a single-user license to a multi-user if the book is accessed very frequently.

  12. 12. Ben J

    Hi there,

    As a reader of SF & F, I’m highly thankful for my public library system – in Australia, the range of titles published is smaller than in the USA.

    In Australia the various public library systems are administered by local councils (3rd tier of Australian government) – if you are a householder who has a mortgage or own your residence, you pay annual rates that provide services such as pre-schools, garbage collection etc. These rates also help fund the public library systems – I also believe that the state governments also contribute funds . If you a renter you can also use the public library system.

    Australia is one of the countries that pays authors for books in libraries. The Department of the Environment, Water, Heritage and the Arts administers two schemes, Public Lending Rights and Educational Lending Rights. The annual reports make for interesting reading.

    As far as e-books are concerned, I’m not aware of any public libraries in Australia that loan them out. E-Books are a very niche market at the moment.



  13. 13. Mary Arrr

    Although this was over a decade ago, did have a conversation with someone from ALA who knew about the fee-to-authors-for-circulation debate. Essentially, when they looked at how the programs worked in practice in other countries they found that the payments were overwhelmingly made to authors who were already huge bestsellers. Payments to non-bestselling authors were small to negligible.

    The decision was made that because the lower circulating books would be the ones not bought if budgets had to include payments to authors, the better way to support authors was through the royalties earned when libraries bought books, not via additional monies.

  14. 14. Bill in Detroit

    A library can only lend out as many books simultaneously as it has purchased. A file-sharing site can create inventory on demand with no return to the artist / author at all.

    As a wannabee author, I wouldn’t mind it if some system were worked out where I could get perhaps 10 cents per hour for each hour my books were read. Hey, if it’s a dud, lay it down after 30 minutes and you’re only out a dime (with a one hour minimum charge, I’ve got a whole hour to set the hook). OTOH, fall asleep with the covers open at your own risk!

    Really, at some point laws and technology will merge and it will once again be possible – likely even – that creators and publishers and consumers will all be given a fair shake.

    “The plane! The plane!”

  15. 15. NewGuyDave

    I’m curious to your thoughts on libraries filling their shelves with used/donated books. Authors don’t get anything from those. Plus libraries sell unused donations to used book dealers for profit (again authors and publishers get nothing) and the books then end up on Amazon through the used dealers (authors and publishers nothing again).

    I don’t have a problem with the libraries finding ways to generate resources to stay afloat, but the money raised from book sales and overdue fees at my library in Hamden, CT apparently goes to the town slush fund. That doesn’t seem right to me.


  16. 16. Jim C. Hines


    Doesn’t bother me any more than used book sales. I’ve been paid for those books. If they want to resell them, I’m fine with that.

    With file sharing, a single file (which I may or may not have been paid for) can multiply and go out to hundreds or thousands of people. But with actual books, each one is a physical object. I expect to get paid for that, but I only need to get paid once. I don’t have a problem with used book sales and such.


Author Information

Jim C. Hines

Jim C. Hines' latest book is THE SNOW QUEEN'S SHADOW, the fourth of his fantasy adventures that retell the old fairy tales with a Charlie's Angels twist. He's also the author of the humorous GOBLIN QUEST trilogy. Jim's short fiction has appeared in more than 40 magazines and anthologies, including Realms of Fantasy, Turn the Other Chick, and Sword & Sorceress XXI. Jim lives in Michigan with his wife and two children. He's currently hard at work on LIBRIOMANCER, the first book in a new fantasy series. Visit site.



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