Public Libraries Show Why Sharing Culture Should Never Have Been Banned in the First Place

Home > Opinion Articles >

You'll have a hard time finding a copyright monopoly maximalist who insists that public libraries should be banned. This would be political suicide; instead, they typically tell lies about why it's not the same thing as online sharing. Let's have a look.

copyright-brandedA concept that’s becoming increasingly useful is “Analog Equivalent Rights.” Culture and knowledge should be just as available in the digital space, as it is in the analog space. We should enjoy exactly the same privacy rights and civil liberties online, as we do offline. The concept is completely reasonable, and nowhere near rocket science. This is a tremendously useful concept, as it makes lawmakers and others reflect on the liberties they are killing off for their children, sometimes followed by a mental shock as they realize what has been going on with their silent approval. Let’s have a look at how this applies to public libraries.

When you are challenging a copyright industry lobbyist over the concept of public libraries, and ask them if they are opposed to people having access to such culture and knowledge without paying, they are smart enough to not deride public libraries – as this would weaken their political position considerably. However, online sharing of culture and knowledge is the Analog Equivalent Right to the public libraries we’ve had for 150 years. Lobbyists will sometimes try to change the subject around this, or more commonly, lie using one of three myths. Here are those myths and lies, and why they are untrue:

Lobbyist lie: The library buys all its books. Therefore, it’s not comparable with online sharing of culture.

Fact: Laws in most countries say that for every, every, book published, the publisher must send a number of copies of that book to certain large libraries at their own cost, to be available without charge for reading by the public.

When the copyright industry complains that they “can’t possibly accept” laws that mandate them to “give away their product for free”, as they tend to put it, it’s only prudent to point out rather sternly that those laws already exist, and have done so for more than a century. The key difference with online sharing is that the analog-equivalent mechanism wouldn’t incur any cost at all to the publishers, something that would normally be seen as a good thing, both from a political and publishing perspective.

Obviously, it’s true that many if not most libraries buy additional books and additional copies of books. However, the main point here is that there are already laws on the books that say that every single book published must be supplied to a library, in order to be available to the public free of charge.

In addition, this ignores the point that the copyright industry doesn’t get to “accept” or “not accept” laws. They get to run a business in a particular legal environment or choose to not do so, and that’s where their prerogative starts and ends. On a functioning free and fair market, entrepreneurs do not and should not have any say whatsoever in what the legal environment looks like. (We still have some distance to go with regards to this point in replacing clueless and dangerous yes-men politicians.)

Lobbyist lie: The rightsholder gets paid when a book is borrowed from a library.

Fact: This is a myth on two fronts – what we would call a “double-fault” in popular sports such as Counter-Strike.

It is true that, under certain conditions and in several countries, some spare change is sent to somebody when a book is borrowed from a library. However, that somebody who receives money is not the rightsholder, nor is it some kind of compensation for a lost sale. In most European countries, it is a governmental culture grant intended to boost the amount of culture available in the local language. Therefore, and this context is crucially important, that spare change has absolutely nothing to do with the exclusive rights of the copyright monopoly. It is a unilateral cultural governmental grant that happens to be based on library statistics, as they are a convenient measure.

If a book in Swedish is borrowed from a Swedish library, then the person who made it available in Swedish gets a very small amount, provided they hit a minimum threshold and hasn’t hit a maximum threshold. Sometimes, this happens to be an author that wrote originally in Swedish, but much more often, it is somebody who translated a book into the Swedish language. Other countries have similar arrangements.

To wit: When somebody borrows Harry Potter in Swedish translation from a Swedish library, J.K. Rowling – the rightsholder – doesn’t get a single penny from that. The myth is just not true on any account.

Lobbyist lie: A library can only lend its book to one person at a time, and therefore, this limit must be artificially imposed in the digital age.

Fact: This was a physical limitation, not a conceptual one. If a library could lend its books to multiple people, it would have done so in a heartbeat long ago. To argue that this physical undesirable limitation should form a basis for limiting legislation in a new environment where the limitation doesn’t exist is worse than a logical fallacy; it makes no sense on any level.

The purpose of the public library is not and was never to “lend books”, as is asserted in this myth. It was, and is, to “make knowledge and culture available to as many people as possible at no cost to them”. What’s possible has expanded greatly with online sharing, and it is only proper that we take advantage of this fantastic potential.

The online sharing of culture and knowledge is the greatest public library ever invented, and the ability for all humankind to take part of all culture and knowledge 24/7 is arguably one of the largest steps of civilization of this century. All the technology has already been invented, all the tools have already been deployed, the ability to use it has already spread to all of humanity: nobody needs to spend a dime to make this happen. All we have to do is to lift the stupid ban on actually using it.

What we need to do is to replace the yes-men politicians who let themselves be puppeteered by an obsolete but lucrative gatekeeper industry in order to make this great leap of civilization. Often, the mere trend to replace such politicians is enough for bad policy to change on a dime.

About The Author

Rick Falkvinge is a regular columnist on TorrentFreak, sharing his thoughts every other week. He is the founder of the Swedish and first Pirate Party, a whisky aficionado, and a low-altitude motorcycle pilot. His blog at focuses on information policy.

Book Falkvinge as speaker?


Popular Posts
From 2 Years ago…