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July 12, 2023

New White Paper Reveals Complex Dynamic Between Ebook Publishers And Platforms

Engelberg Center

The Engelberg Center on Innovation Law & Policy at NYU Law has released a groundbreaking new white paper, The Anti-Ownership Ebook Economy: How Publishers and Platforms Have Reshaped How We Read in the Digital Age.

The paper examines the economic, legal, and social dynamics of ebook licensing and ownership, finding evidence to support the idea that publishers have formed partnerships with ebook licensing platforms that make the ability to own digital books near impossible.

“Understanding why ebooks are so rarely sold requires insight into the priorities, motivations, and constraints of a wide range of ebook stakeholders,” said Michael Weinberg, executive director of the Engelberg Center. “This paper brings those dynamics to light, serving as a reference for future investigations into this critical topic.”

The white paper has been in development for over a year and was co-written by Weinberg, NYU School of Law Professor Jason Schultz, CUNY Law Professor and Engelberg Center Fellow Sarah Lamdan, and Engelberg Center Fellow Claire Woodcock.

“I think a lot of the opposition around how we access ebooks paints different parties as villains,” said Sarah Lamdan. “But are these perceptions based on reality? Or are the divisions between publishers and libraries less black and white – are there just good-faith disagreements about how selling and borrowing books online should work?”

Claire Woodcock, an independent journalist and recent graduate of CU Boulder’s Master of Arts in Media & Public Engagement program, joined the project last fall as a Engelberg Center Digital Fellow to help uncover answers to some of the remaining questions Weinberg, Schultz, and Lamdan had about publisher and platform workflows, belief systems about licensing models, and to what degree consumer data is used to sustain the marketplace.

“There’s still so much we don’t know about the impact that digital library lending of books has on that market,” said Claire Woodcock. “That being said, I believe the insights we’ve gleaned from this speaking with stakeholders throughout the industry give us a much more comprehensive understanding of how the publisher-platform relationship came to be and what that’s meant for institutional consumers like libraries.”

“The Anti-Ownership Ebook Economy: How Publishers and Platforms Have Reshaped How We Read in the Digital Age” comes as the courts are navigating copyright law in the post-digital age.

“Courts are struggling to understand the legal issues surrounding ebooks, especially how fair use might apply to owning or lending them,” said Jason Schultz. “This white paper helps clarify where we are and where the law needs to go to preserve digital ownership, especially for libraries who depend on owning their books so patrons can borrow them free-of-charge.”

The Engelberg Center invites media to attend a full-day event on October 27, 2023 at NYU Law that will bring together stakeholders across the industry to discuss and build upon the economic, legal, and social dynamics of ebook licensing and ownership initially introduced in the paper. The event will be co-sponsored by Library Futures, and will feature discussion from the paper’s co-authors as well as a series of panels with industry leaders who range the gamut from librarians to platform providers to publishers.

Register for this event.