"Public Libraries are just a Form of Theft" - Brian Edwards

UPDATE October 5th 2009: Brian Edwards has deleted his post. See the Google cached version here

Returning to his old hobby horse Brian Edwards writes a scathing article against public libraries categorising it as a "crime" that the public "steal", that they're "stingy" and the tirade goes on. Like many copyright extremists, Brian interchangably talks about (1) the theft of a physical work, (2) making a copy perhaps by taking a photo, and (3) looking at a physical work. Only some of these have anything to do with copyright and licensing, and muddling these up is disingenuous. CFF's Matthew Holloway responded in the comments. It raises the question: If Public Libraries Didn’t Exist, Could You Start One Today? With these kind of views around I sadly doubt it.

The following are responses posted on Brian Edwards website

Brian Edwards writes: “Should the musician, painter, sculptor, architect take the same view? I can tell you, I’d love to own a Rita Angus or even a Dick Frizell, but there’s no way I could afford to buy one.”

Surely by now you can afford one Brian? Even an old, used one?

In your article you’re interchangeably describing (1) the theft of a physical work, (2) making a legal copy perhaps by taking a photo, and (3) looking at a thing. Only some of these have anything to do with copyright and licensing, and muddling these up is disingenuous.

Copyright is a balance of public and private rights; it always has been, and that balance is codified in law more so here in New Zealand than in countries with Fair Use defenses. The US define the goal of role of copyright as to progress the arts, and New Zealand lawmakers have similar ideas about how to design that balance.

We were one of the first countries to tip the balance in favour of the public by guaranteeing disabled people equality in access to books (regardless of the desires of authors). I’m proud to say other countries have now followed New Zealands lead. At the time authors called these disabled people thieves and criminals, much like you have here. However it’s also worth noting that over the exact same period New Zealand reduced the amount of text that public educators could copy in favour of private author rights. So do these authors “steal” from the public? Just another form of theft?

Debating the balance in terms of “theft”, “crime” and stealing is unnecessarily combative, and I’d say unpersuasive. If you’re going to convince the public to give up free libraries then you’ll need to recognize it as a negotiation.

Your assertions about the economics of this, the mythical lost sale from a lent book, are one way of looking at it.

Others see libraries as stimulating the publics’ interest in books with what’s essentially a time-limited sample that encourages more people to buy, much like a radio station that promotes and plays songs that you may later purchase. Authors get publicly subsidised promotion at zero cost, and one could say that authors should pay libraries for the advertising! I’ve bought books that I’ve read in libraries as I’m sure many others have too. My interest in odd topics has been maintained with library books, and has encouraged the odd purchase or two. What’s going on at libraries is more sophisticated than lost sales.

The assertions of what benefits New Zealand as a whole will only get us so far. You’ve asserted that New Zealand children would benefit in a lone sentence backed only by -it seems- a new take on trickle down economics.

We need surveys, economic models, theories, and testing to see how people use libraries to even attempt to answer the questions raised here.

Perhaps there are some parallels to be drawn here:

Libraries have not yet distributed their content on the internet, and so user pays per-unit is the norm online.

But selling individual digital copies in an age without copying costs may no longer be the best business model for authors, or musicians.

A Spotify-like service for books, perhaps something like the publisher O’Reilly’s service called Safari might better serve authors and the public.

To me that sounds like something the public would get behind.

Brian Edwards writes: “I very much doubt that authors get very much “free advertising” from the presence of their books in libraries.”

Here we are again, back at the start. Assertions can only go so far, Brian.

Are you honestly saying that libraries don’t help your interest in a subject, or an author, and cause purchases?
Brian Edwards writes: “by distributing his words and thoughts to a wide audience for nothing the effect is the same as a large scale breach of copyright.

I don’t think you understand what copyright is.

Copyright is infact designed to be good for society through a balance of public and private rights. It’s no accident that libraries all around the world are encouraged to do this - it’s by design. The public see good in this.

The public aren’t thieves, and demonizing them for using a legitimate, legal and cherished public resource won’t achieve anything other than eroding public respect for authors.

The thing about copyright is that those who argue for ‘only private rights’ or ‘only public rights’ are anti-social extremists; they don’t seek to benefit society.

Actual copyright is a balance, and again I suggest that you find that.

Brian Edwards writes: “I can’t believe that you and others are finding this concept so difficult."

I don’t believe that anyone misunderstands your concept. There is however strong disagreement with your copyright maximalist position.

In this NYTimes piece http://bit.ly/FqRt they set out 3 points in favour of libraries and how they’re beneficial to authors:

“1. Libraries help train young people to be readers; when those readers are older, they buy books.
2. Libraries expose readers to works by authors they wouldn’t have otherwise read; readers may then buy other works by the same author, or even the same book to have in their collection.
3. Libraries help foster a general culture of reading; without it, there would be less discussion, criticism, and coverage of books in general, which would result in fewer book sales.”

Brian Edwards writes: “Of course ideas can be stolen. Why do you think we have patent laws? Or for that matter, why do you think we have copyright laws?

Copyright doesn’t cover ideas. The typical distinction is said that copyright covers the expression, not the idea.

If you’d like to learn more about copyright Brian I can be hired as a consultant.

Your first homework assignment would be these two articles,


“[Copyright] protects the way the ideas are expressed, but it doesn’t protect the ideas themselves. So the Listener could sue you for photocopying this article and trying to sell the copy, but it can’t prevent you writing about it in your own words.”


Although this TechDirt article is about US law it has some interesting distinctions between derivative and transformative works.

Brian Edwards writes: “But I want my book to be in the library and I want people to read it. But I think I’m entitled to some small recompense.”

So you want to have publicly subsidised shops for your work.
Brian Edwards writes: “I have written and lectured on the subject of copyright. I know what it is.”

You evidently don’t understand what copyright even covers, and my earlier suspicions were proven true. Copyright is a balance of private and public rights. Libraries are intentional - they’re not a technicality or exploiting some loophole.
Brian Edwards writes: “I already agreed that what public libraries do is not technically a breach of copyright.”

It’s not just technically avoiding a breach: libraries are by design. Lawmakers allow them and society benefits from them.

So we have no breaches of the law, no actual “theft”, no actual “crime” and you have yet to show that libraries cause lost sales, or to what degree, despite this being the cornerstone of your argument.

To the contrary, libraries help authors by encouraging a tradition of reading and by exposing people to new works, ideas, and authors.