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Amazon takes big step in e-book deal with libraries, but activists seek more

Amazon takes big step in e-book deal with libraries, but activists seek more
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Amazon reached a deal to license its e-books to libraries nationwide shortly before a Maryland state bill became law that would force the e-commerce giant to make that material available to libraries in the state.

“The fact that Amazon is working with libraries at all is to be celebrated. They've been holding out, and now they are. Are there things that could be better, yes,” Michael Blackwell, director of St. Mary’s County Library in Maryland, told The Hill.

Although the deal is a big step, digital rights advocacy group Fight for the Future said it does not go far enough and lawmakers and librarians in other states are considering similar proposals that would put additional pressure on Amazon to make its e-books and audiobooks accessible to libraries.

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Maryland’s bill that would require any publisher that offers a license to an electronic literary product to also offer to license the product to public libraries in the state became law without Gov. Larry Hogan’s (R) signature over the weekend. It passed both chambers unanimously earlier this year.

The law means Amazon would have to make the books it publishes in-house available to public libraries across the state. The law doesn’t specifically call out Amazon, but traditional publishers have existing licensing options they offer libraries for content.

A couple weeks before the state bill’s deadline for the session, Amazon signed an agreement with the Digital Public Library of America (DPLA) to make its approximately 10,000 Amazon Publishing e-books and audiobooks available to libraries nationwide through the DPLA’s exchange.

Under the deal with DPLA, Amazon is offering access to all its Amazon Publishing titles through four licensing models. The titles will be available to libraries and their patrons through the DPLA Exchange, a library-centered content marketplace, and library patrons will be able to access the titles through SimplyE, an e-reader app founded by the New York Public Library.

“Amazon Publishing is pleased to have joined DPLA in their work to develop flexible, accessible, and equitable digital library lending licensing models that support the interests of libraries, authors, and patrons,” Mikyla Bruder, head of Amazon Publishing Worldwide, said in a statement.

Amazon also won’t receive any patron data through the deal with DPLA — an aspect of the deal that even Fight for the Future cheered.

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“One win that advocates can truly celebrate in this deal, however, is that these e- and audio- books will not be used by Amazon to spy on library patrons. The Digital Public Library of America cut a licensing deal that shields library patrons from Amazon’s prying eyes by keeping all patron data within their app—as opposed to letting Amazon slurp up all the data of public library patrons who opt to read an ebook on Kindle,” Lia Holland, Fight for the Future campaigns and communications director, said in a statement after the deal was announced.

Although the deal is a measured step toward libraries gaining access to Amazon’s e-books, it's a stark change from the Seattle-based tech behemoth’s previous refusal to sell the e-books it published to libraries for lending.

Unlike traditional publishers, Amazon had not allowed libraries licensing deals to purchase their e-books and sparked backlash from librarians and activists. The issue was underscored last year as coronavirus restrictions on in-person interaction were put in place, and libraries of various sizes across the country reported spikes in e-book requests.

“Amazon may be dipping a toe in the water,” Blackwell said about the deal with DPLA. He said the tech giant may see how this deal works out and try to expand from there.

“But the fact that they've come forward at all is good for libraries,” Blackwell added.

Notably missing from Amazon’s deal with the DPLA is granting libraries access to the thousands of Audible original audiobooks. Amazon owns Audible, and touts its Audible originals on its website as “stories you won’t hear anywhere else.”

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“When we first heard that Amazon had stopped stonewalling public libraries, we were excited by the victory—but then we learned more. Nothing has changed in the struggle for equity in e- and audio- book distribution,” Holland said in the statement.

Holland knocked the agreement over the lack of access to the Audible originals, as well as the thousands of e-books that are self-published.

Amazon declined to comment further about future plans to expand the agreement to allow access to the self-published titles and Audible originals, as well as about plans to create deals to make content available through other popular digital distributors of e-books or libraries, such as OverDrive.

Blackwell said that the approximately 10,000 titles, often from Amazon deals with well-known authors, that will be available through this deal are the books that librarians are likely most interested in gaining access to. The deal would give libraries, through the DPLA Exchange, access to Amazon’s books from popular authors such as Dean Koontz, Mindy Kaling and Mark Sullivan.

“I don't think that we're necessarily shut out of all [that] Amazon content, it will depend on the arrangements beyond our hands with Amazon, but I will say that this is going to give us access to the things we most want,” he said.

Maryland’s first-in-the-nation legislation requiring publishers of electronic literary content to make such content available to libraries, though, may force Amazon’s hand at expanding its policies to make more of its e-book content and the Audible Original audiobooks available for libraries.

The bill includes “an audio recording” in the definition of electronic literary products. The legislation will go into effect at the start of next year.

The deal also comes as other states are ramping up pressure on Amazon over its exclusive content.

State lawmakers in Rhode Island and New York proposed similar bills that would require publishers to offer licenses for electronic books to libraries under reasonable terms. And librarians across Connecticut, Washington and Virginia are considering putting legislation forward, Blackwell said.

“I would expect to see other states follow, and I’m sure librarians are going to try to work at a federal level to try to get some consideration, as well,” he said.