Hudson Institute

Why Overbroad State Library Ebook Licensing Bills Are Unconstitutional

E-Reader and book with reading glasses.
E-Reader and book with reading glasses. (Getty Images)

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I. Introduction

There has been a coordinated push over the past few years for states to enact legislation that would regulate the marketplace for licensing copyrighted ebooks to public libraries. The supporters of these bills argue that publishers offer ebook licenses that are too costly and restrictive, making it difficult for libraries to provide adequate access to their patrons. The gist of these complaints is that the market for digital ebooks should mirror the one for physical books, in which libraries pay the same price as everyone else and set their own rules for making loans. In essence, they want states to step in to remedy the perceived disparity with ebooks, which they blame on the allegedly abusive trade practices of publishers. But the reality is that publishers treat the two markets differently because they are fundamentally different, and there is nothing abusive about it. Moreover, publishers are merely doing what federal copyright law encourages them to do, and states are powerless to enact overbroad laws that would unconstitutionally punish them for doing so.

While these concerns with the ebook licensing marketplace may be relatively new, the legal issues presented by the proposed state regulations to address them are not. Many states already have laws on copyright licensing in other contexts, and the extent of a state’s limited capacity to regulate in this area has been long-settled by the courts. Nevertheless, supporters of the new ebook licensing bills appear uninterested in the clear legal implications of their favored policy position. Shortly after the first such ebook law went into effect in Maryland, a federal district court struck it down as unconstitutional because it forced publishers to grant licenses. Other states have since moved forward with new ebook legislation based on the model text provided by Library Futures, a policy organization, that purports to solve the constitutional issue by merely dictating the terms of the licenses. However, Library Futures makes no real effort to defend the legality of its proposed legislation, and the truth is that it suffers the same constitutional defect.

This policy memo explains how federal copyright law supersedes and limits state laws that regulate the licensing of copyrighted works. While states can validly target certain abusive conduct related to the manner in which copyright licenses are negotiated, federal law is clear that states cannot cross the line by dictating the terms of such licenses when they directly implicate the exclusive rights secured by the Copyright Act.

Key Takeaways:

1. Publishers rightfully treat sales of physical books and licenses of digital ebooks differently because they are distinct under federal copyright law.

2. State efforts to regulate the ebook licensing marketplace are limited by federal copyright law under the Supremacy Clause of the U.S. Constitution.

3. State ebook licensing laws based on the Library Futures model legislative text are unconstitutional because they conflict with federal copyright law.

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