Ethical publishing, paywalls, 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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I think this is an oversimplification, the main reason being that in practice, if not for paywalls (or some sort of paid access model), certain content would not exist at all. I’m thinking of extremely niche Substack newsletters, for example.

But I agree in the ideal world case, it would be great for as much as possible to be accessible via libraries. And this doesn’t necessarily preclude paid access — it’s possible for media to both be paywalled in one context, and still available via libraries. Ebooks as one common example (though of course that whole system is a mess for a number of reasons).

My favorite broad approach / philosophy is the “unlocking the commons” model, basically optional pure patronage membership, some sort of recurring financial support, but not paying for access — the content itself remains free for all, while paying members may get some bonuses like behind the scenes material, tote bag, etc.


Hi Brendan, thanks for sharing those thoughts.

The whole goal of is to fund public goods. So, if we succeed, then there would be no more need for paywalls. That said, we will eventually (it’s not our launch focus) need to figure out how to best adapt the system to support more niche projects that have a smaller total audience.

So, while I stand by the idea that paywalls work against libraries, the need to fund the work in the first place is a good excuse. We need to fix things so such compromises aren’t needed. See

This is indeed better than all-paywalled, but we should note the significance of different types of extras.

  • If paying members get exclusive access to paywalled non-rivalrous works (such as behind-the-scenes videos or extra materials like that), then it’s essentially freemium model. That still involves locking away publications that could be made fully public as long as there’s otherwise a way to fund the work.
  • If paying members get rivalrous rewards like tote bags, shirts, highlighted acknowledgements, dedicated support, or personal time (such as getting their questions answered in an AMA), that’s fine and has no conflict whatsoever with libraries or the public interest. I’m perfectly happy with those sorts of rewards.
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For sure, I think this is a really important topic! And there are probably two fairly different conversations to have in terms of a) discussing gradual improvements to the world of funding and distributing content as it exists currently, and b) long term ideal future visions :slight_smile:

I’ve read most of the Snowdrift wiki at one point or another, and I get the arguments about artificial scarcity / nonrivalrous goods, limitations and shortcomings of copyright, and the need for better ways to fund public goods.

But I also recognize that Snowdrift as yet remains mostly theoretical and there’s a long road to a world where paywalls are no longer necessary. In the world as it exists today, I do think it’s important to recognize that paywalls, while imperfect, are often better than many alternatives. For example I appreciate that subscription support with Patreon, Substack, etc. can align incentives between creator and audience much better than e.g. an advertising model.

Also worth noting that there are many kinds of paywalls, with varying degrees of porosity, and I think there’s at least potential to both enable useful ways to monetize content creation directly to an audience and at the same time make the content free in other ways.

When you envision “success” for Snowdrift, do you imagine it replacing all other models to become the only mechanism by which public goods are funded? If not…there will likely still be a place for paywalls, subscriptions, and various other models all coexisting right?

As far as the distinction between different types of “extras” or “rewards” for patronage, I think this is interesting but I also think most patrons don’t really care about the rivalrous / nonrivalrous distinction.

I think it can be more useful to think in terms of what is “core” content — the main work, whatever that is (book, podcast, whatever) vs. ancillary goods the point of which is to serve as a bonus, give supporters a feeling of being part of the club, etc. Though the distinction you mention is valid, whether the “bonus” content is a behind the scenes episode or tshirt may be less relevant in terms of the function served / how the audience values it.

Bit of a tangent but this is one of my favorite pieces discussing, essentially, various non-copyable qualities that can add value to otherwise non-rivalrous goods; I think it raises some very interesting possibilities for the “unlocking the commons” sort of approach:


Of course, we won’t be able to eliminate paywalls entirely, and I wouldn’t say that is a failure as long as there are still paywalls in the world. But I would like to see paywalls eliminated. I’m not so opposed to some forms of support-requests, such as asking people to please consider becoming a patron along with a “not now” option to still get access.

Patrons today don’t care, but part of the message I want to spread is that we should care. This is similar to the beginnings of this topic where I expressed concern about the effect paywalls have on libraries and @chreekat replied that too few people understand and care enough about libraries for this argument to be good at reaching most people.

I would like a future where everyone celebrates sharing. That could be through libraries or through copying works for one another. This brings up another distinction:

  • Some paywalls use copyright and/or technical restrictions or just social norms to ask people not to share. The message is: you pay to join the club, and don’t copy these things for anyone else.
  • Others might be still FLO licensed and really be saying: you can share and adapt this freely, but we’re only distributing this to those who donate (such as the case for Ardour).

I find both troubling, but the latter is less anti-sharing, less anti-social in that sense. I would hope we can succeed enough to eliminate the need for either.

I agree that this is a useful distinction as well. Having only a truly incomplete or inferior public product is more extreme paywalling than only paywalling extra bonus material.

  • Immediacy can be thought of as paywall-with-expiration-date, which is better as a weaker paywall but it still is an impediment to free-flowing collaboration
  • Personalization is non-rivalrous, so that example is fine by me
  • Interpretation is somewhat like personalization, it’s not really relevant unless it’s specific to a particular use-case.
  • Authenticity seems non-rivalrous if done right, even though it can’t be copied exactly. Everyone can still go to the main source.
  • Accessibility is like a non-rivalrous service, and it’s fine to pay for that
  • Embodiment is a way to specify non-rivalrous really (printed book, live performance in person)
  • Findability is huge, but that could be non-rivalrous (the results of curation are published) or a service, which makes sense to pay for.

The question for this topic is: what’s the effect on libraries? I don’t want library users to be second-class citizens who can’t access up-to-date stuff, but it’s better than nothing. Personalization is irrelevant. In the other cases, these are just the sorts of services libraries do! They work on interpretation, authentication, access, finding things, and even embodiment! So, effectively, I’m agreeing that these are all things that are separate from the publications themselves, they matter, and the social way to fund them would be to fund libraries that can offer these services. I also have no problem with people funding them privately and directly as well. I just love that libraries can provide even these things to people who otherwise may not be able to pay directly.