Ethical publishing and public libraries

My own transition from copyright-apologist to free culture activist came through using the public library. I appreciate everything about public libraries and imagine what the world could be like if only they were stronger, more widespread, and used by everyone.

So, I was thinking about how I somewhat see all sorts of non-FLO approaches to publishing as anti-library. This isn’t fully refined as a concept, and I’m posting to inspire feedback.

A proposed publishing-for-libraries ethical principle

Anything published or otherwise available to the general public to access should be fully available to public libraries (including the Internet Archive). That includes soft multimedia (the public goods we focus on with and reusable physical goods (libraries of things, tool libraries etc).

So, every paywalled bit of media is an attack on public libraries. And that explains in a deeper sense why I feel so opposed to paywalls. Rather than explain all the broader economics, access justice issues etc., if anyone can understand the democratizing, liberating, immense value of public libraries, that gets the whole point across. I fear a potential future where so much culture and technology is excluded from libraries.

Side-note: concerns about safety around anything dangerous (e.g. weapons) are irrelevant to my points because the same policies for limiting public purchase of something should simply also apply to library access.

Anyway, perhaps the only key thing missing from this framing is freedom to make creative derivatives. Incidentally, my views on that were shaped by libraries too. It was through the public library that I reviewed a huge amount of materials on subjects I was studying (music in my case); and through that process I recognized most starkly both (A) the possibility of synthesizing better works by combining and updating what already exists and (B) how copyright law blocked me from actually doing that.

Could these thoughts be summarized into a pithy principle that could help people see the issues more clearly? I’m thinking like, “oh no, they’re adding a paywall, that means it can’t be in the library!” Ideally, this makes it clear why me paying the paywall for myself does not solve the tension at all.


I like the idea, but it feels too pithy, such that one can easily respond, “…So?”

I should frame my comment, however. How one responds to your principle will depend on their preconceptions. In my general social circle, I can think of almost nobody who actually goes to libraries. Those who I do know to frequent libraries are either (a) in this specific circle, or (b) residents of Helsinki, where the new Oodi library has been built right next to the central train station with the express intent of being not just a place for borrowing media, but also a city meeting point and hangout. (It’s amazing, by the way.)

I guess I always judge an argument by how likely it is to budge the needle on people who don’t already agree with the principle in question. Given how rare it is for people I know to actually use libraries, I expect an appeal to the library will just fly straight on past their zone of concern. “Surely the market could do better,” I hear some of them say?

Even people who do use libraries or do care about them in the abstract could probably benefit from less pith and more discourse on the role libraries have played in the world.

Get them to care about libraries, and you might not even need to nudge them to care about public goods.


Very well put!

I have my own same experiences. I happen to have grown up 1 mile from a library consistently rated as a top-10 library in the U.S. Even still, it was a process for me to think through. People around me still typically rented videos from rental stores while the same videos were available freely at the library. I now live about 1 mile from a pretty decent smaller (but recently expanded) library. Unless someone’s experienced it, they may not recognize the significance. Just like it often takes some real obvious value of software-freedom or harm from proprietary software in order for someone to get that issue.

People who even use libraries often don’t recognize how exceptionally important they are. Even people who care about privacy don’t know about how public libraries have been one of the most important institutions protecting privacy and civil liberties (historically offering to not keep records of borrowing and also fighting surveillance government requests for such records). Libraries have historically been the most important institution for empowering citizens, particularly the underprivileged, poorer among us.

Libraries are mostly not even reaching their potential. Our local library just this year added library-of-things. I can check out binoculars, camping gear, kitchen appliances, a record player, musical instruments, a GoPro camera, soldering iron, table games, a sewing machine…

Most people don’t know that libraries can even be like this. But even those who get it don’t all take the next logical step: seeing how this reveals the potential for the world to have a totally different and more sustainable and pro-social economic reality.

I guess those few who do already see that can be easily brought to understand the next logical step of FLO stuff.

On the downside about our status quo, our libraries are also getting undermined and captured by DRM. ebooks and audiobooks are licensed to the library to allow limited DRMed use by patrons in a total Trojan Horse. Even library patrons thus end up funneling library resources into those schemes which can be yanked away at any time, leaving the library with no archive and no control.

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One extra personal reflection: The library is a primary trustworthy collective resource that serves the public interest. I am free to not hoard things because I know that good caretakers at the library will assure their availability. Paywalls and other limitations that undermine the library feel like an attack on my personal security in a sense. They deny me the security of a trusted social institution. Anything I care about, I’m on my own to secure it. But I can’t run my own version of the Internet Archive!

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